Things just got worse for Takata, the Japanese company that makes airbag inflators for trucks and cars. It is already in the middle of a recall campaign to replace some 29 million inflators in US vehicles deemed to be defective. It is the largest and most complex recall campaign in US history. Yesterday, it got a lot bigger.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says up to 40 million more airbag inflators will need to be replaced by the end of 2019. “It’s going to force them into bankruptcy unless they can get a consortium of Japanese banks to bail them out,” says Scott Upham, president of Valient Market Research.
The problem is that Takata uses ammonium nitrate, a blasting agent used in open pit mining operations, as the propellant in its inflators. Unless that compound is mixed with a drying agent — a desiccant, as it is known in the trade — it can become unstable when exposed to temperature changes and high humidity over long periods of time.
NHTSA says it can take between 6 and 25 years for the changes in chemistry to take place, but the inflators do not pose an “unreasonable risk to safety” until they reach “a certain level of propellant degradation.”
When they do, the inflator can explode with greater than intended force, shattering the container around it, and sending shards of metal flying around. In other words, it can turn itself into a version of what the military calls a fragmentation grenade. Some Takata inflators have the desiccant mixed in, some do not. In total, there are about 85 million Takata inflators installed in trucks and automobiles in the US.
Defects in Takata airbags have been linked to 10 U.S. deaths and more than 100 injuries over the last several years. Just this week, Honda confirmed two additional fatalities in April and May, both in Malaysia. “The science clearly shows that these inflators become unsafe over time, faster when exposed to humidity and variations of temperature,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement.
The expansions announced today will take place in five phases prioritized by risk, starting in May and continuing through December 2019. Older vehicles in hot, humid climates will receive higher priority for replacement parts than newer vehicles in less-humid climates.
Some critics question whether using ammonium nitrate is ever safe, even when mixed with drying agents. NHTSA says Takata must prove that all its airbag inflators are safe before the end of 2019 or face the possibility of replacing yet another 50 million units.
The new recall affects vehicles manufactured by Jaguar-Land Rover, Fisker, and Tesla Motors for the first time. Fourteen other auto companies, including American Honda, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, Nissan and Fiat-Chrysler are already affected by the recalls.
It can be argued that airbags have saved far more lives and prevented far more injuries than they have caused. While that may be true, the idea that there may be a ticking time bomb inside the steering wheel or dashboard has to be cause for concern for many drivers, particularly those with older cars used in hot, moist climates.
Source and photo credit: Automotive News