An attempt to save money takes lives and ultimately costs millions in fines. Are you flipping mad yet? You should be. Updated January 10, 2019
In the largest auto recall in history, tens of millions of vehicles have been recalled to have 28.8 million airbags replaced. Takata airbag inflators have injured more than 100 people and killed 16 people: 12 in the U.S. and 4 in Malaysia, with the most recent being a 50 year old California woman on September 30, 2016. The woman was driving a 2001 Honda Civic and, according to Honda, several recall notices had been sent to the registered owners though the woman had bought the car at the end of 2015.
This story has been in the news for years and you’ve probably paid some attention to it just because of its frequency on the news, but with the media’s fixation on the election, disease du jour, ISIS, and so on, a few airbag deaths get left behind in our daily news consumption of dread.
What’s been happening is that the airbag itself isn’t killing drivers: it’s shrapnel from the explosive device used to deploy the airbag. These metal fragments explode out at such a force that they slice right through skin, eyes, arteries, and even spinal columns. This is happening when the airbags deploy in minor crashes, collisions from which the victims should be walking away.
Before you run out and disconnect your airbags (and I know some of you will), these explosive devices, or inflators, are needed in order to deploy the airbag. In fact, they’re in other safety devices throughout your vehicle and activate in crashes, but we’re focusing on airbags here. When the airbag sensors detect a crash, the inflators ignite, starting a chemical reaction that fills the airbag with gas. It sounds crazy scary, but airbags have saved thousands of lives. Between 2010 and 2013 (the latest year from which we have data), 9,554 lives were saved by frontal airbags. Many thousands upon thousands more lives have been saved since the frontal airbag was introduced in the ‘70s.
Problems with exploding airbags initially cropped up back in 2004 in Alabama when a Honda Accord airbag exploded, injuring its driver. Because it was the first incident, both Honda and Takata chalked it up to being an anomaly and moved on without issuing a recall. According to the New York Times, Honda did report the incident to NHTSA, but didn’t elaborate in the report that it was an airbag rupture. Then again in 2007, three more ruptures were reported to Honda, and again, Honda did not elaborate in their reports to NHTSA that the airbags were exploding. In 2007, Honda told Takata of the ruptures and Takata went to work to find the cause: manufacturing problems at their Mexican plant. However, the ruptures continued and after more testing, Takata linked the problem to manufacturing problems at their Washington state factory.
Recalls began in 2008 and initially only driver’s side airbag inflators were recalled, but passenger airbag inflators were added as those started to rupture as well. Then in August 2015, side airbag inflators came under inspection when a Volkswagen Tiguan’s seat mounted side airbags ruptured after a collision with a deer. GM also reported a rupture to NHTSA. This “SSI-20” inflator is found in Volkswagen and GM vehicles and has been recalled in those vehicles too.
The recalled Takata inflator assemblies use a propellant made of ammonium nitrate, which is susceptible to long-term heat and humidity. Takata is the only airbag manufacturer to use ammonium nitrate, an inexpensive chemical. According to a New York Times article, engineers within the company even expressed concern to management about using it. Ammonium nitrate is compressed into small tablets similar in size to baby aspirin, or into wafers. It becomes unstable when it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere and when temperatures vary from day to night, which any vehicle owner knows can happen to a vehicle left outside in the sun. Other manufacturers use guanidine nitrate, a more expensive but stable propellant, and Takata has followed suit for its new inflators.
The obvious solution to the exploding inflators problem is to not use ammonium nitrate, but since it’s such a major component of Takata design, it can’t be completely eliminated right away. Other airbag manufacturers, such as Autoliv, TRW, and Daicel, are helping supply fixes, but since their designs are different than the Takata design, their replacement inflators must be specially fitted to work. In the meantime, Takata has incorporated a desiccant to absorb extra moisture to make it less likely a rupture will occur. We find desiccant packets in everything from pill bottles to shoe boxes to purses, but will this simple fix work in an airbag? The next testing step for the ITC is to see if the desiccant is helpful. NHTSA has given Takata until the end of 2019 to prove it’s safe; it’s not allowed to use ammonium nitrate on new orders, but it can to fill existing orders. This leads to an interesting question: what is an existing order? Is a new model year vehicle an existing order or a new order? Can Takata continue to place ammonium nitrate inflators in new vehicles simply because it fulfills an outstanding order that was placed years ago?
Vehicle manufacturers can take some responsibility in the matter and some have. Honda, which owns a minority stake in Takata, stopped using Takata airbags in its vehicles in late 2015. All but one of the deaths so far have been in Honda vehicles; a man from Georgia died in December 2015 in a 2006 Ford Ranger. Nissan, Ford, Mazda, and Toyota have also fired Takata as a supplier of airbag inflators in their new model vehicles, following Honda’s lead.
What Is the Connection to Child Passengers?
Scott Yon, Chief of the Vehicle Integrity Division in the Office of Defects Investigations at NHTSA, hinted that they’re at little risk of injury because they’re not driving. Passenger side inflator ruptures have injured, but not killed, so far. This is because the passenger side inflator is buried inside the dashboard housing and deploys in an upward motion first, then toward the passenger. However, since there have been injuries recorded, this is another incentive, a very strong one indeed, to keep children in the back seat.
When asked if any shrapnel was found in the back seat, where children under 13 should be sitting at all times in proper restraints for their size and age, NHTSA replied that none was seen. NHTSA also stated that there was no evidence of shrapnel in the roof liners of vehicles where inflators had exploded, which indicates that all damage remained in the front seats. That doesn’t mean that it will always be that way, though, since inflators for side curtain airbags can be found at the A pillar, in the roof line, or at the C pillar, behind the back seat.
When answers weren’t forthcoming as to why these inflators were exploding, a group of 10 automakers calling themselves the Independent Testing Coalition (ITC), led by former NHTSA Administrator David Kelly, hired Orbital ATK, a rocket science and defense company, to run independent tests and found that failure of the airbags is likely due to a combination of the use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant, the construction of the inflator assembly, and the long-term exposure to humidity and heat found in many southern states. The ITC consists of Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Ford, GM, Mazda, Fiat Chrysler, and BMW, and formed in 2015 when it became clear that their vehicles would be affected by the recalls.
You know when certain chemicals react to water there’s an awful reaction (e.g., trying to put a grease fire out with water)? What NHTSA also found in its testing was that ammonium nitrate doesn’t age particularly well. So add heat and humidity to an unstable chemical and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.
What does long-term exposure to high heat and humidity mean anyway? In testing the recalled inflators pulled from fixed vehicles, it became obvious to Takata there was a zone in the U.S. where most of these vehicles had spent a significant amount of their time. The southern Gulf Coast states, well-known for high absolute humidity—eastern Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia—had vehicles where the inflators exploded on testing. Interestingly enough, there were inflators tested in other parts of the U.S. that exploded without explanation; that is, until it was discovered that these vehicles had come from a Gulf Coast state. Being in a warm, humid climate for a vacation, or even for a winter isn’t enough for the propellant to break down. Ruptures start happening in the window between 5-10 years, so we’re talking a significant amount of time.
Vehicles manufactured before 2008 have priority for repair in the recall of the inflators because of the aging propellant issue. NHTSA has mandated that these vehicles have their replacements before the end of 2017. It’s not that easy, though. They may get their replacement, but may also need another before it’s all said and done. Because there are so many inflators that need to be replaced posthaste, newly designed parts simply aren’t available; this is called an interim remedy. Rather than allow defective inflators to stay in vehicles, vehicle manufacturers are replacing them with newer versions of the same Takata inflators. This essentially sets the clock back to 0 and gives Takata and other inflator manufacturers time to design a new inflator that won’t react to environmental issues.
Each affected vehicle manufacturer was asked by NHTSA to prioritize its recalled vehicles into four risk groups:
Priority Group 1: Highest risk vehicles, generally the oldest from model year 2008 or older, have spent time in the high absolute humidity region, and have either a recalled driver’s inflator or both recalled driver’s and passenger’s inflator; parts must be on hand for repair by March 31, 2016, and total completion of remedy must be by December 31, 2017
Priority Group 2: Intermediate-high risk vehicles that include all vehicles with recalled driver’s inflators not in Group 1, and vehicles with passenger inflators that have higher rupture frequency and have spent time in the high absolute humidity region; parts must be on hand for repair by September 20, 2016, and total completion of remedy must be by December 31, 2017
Priority Group 3: High risk vehicles, generally outside the high absolute humidity region, with only passenger inflators or those with certain passenger inflators that have a lower risk of rupture; parts must be on hand for repair by December 31, 2016, and total completion of remedy must be by December 31, 2017
Priority Group 4: Vehicles that will require an interim remedy because alternate parts are not available. Risk of rupture is very low in the years following the fix.
However, NHTSA is concerned about 2 types of owners in response to the interim remedy: the type who will wait years with a dangerous airbag unit until the final fix is available and the type who will get the interim remedy fix and never go back for the final fix. Both would be driving potentially deadly vehicles and what about when they sell or trade-in those vehicles? It then becomes the next potentially unaware owner’s problem. It’s imperative that if a vehicle qualifies for an interim remedy, it should also go back for the final remedy.
Culture of Non-Safety