Mushrooming out of control, the Takata airbag inflator crisis took on more urgency for car owners as the estimated number of inflators involved has jumped nearly fourfold. According to people knowledgeable about the matter, regulators are studying whether to order of between 70 and 90 million more potentially dangerous airbag inflators. To date, 29 million inflators, installed in as many as 23 million vehicles, have been recalled so far. The potential new recall would add between 56 and 71 million vehicles to the mix, based on figures generated by recalls so far.
According to a report that appeared in Automotive News early today, the total number of potentially faulty airbags involved in the Takata airbag crisis could be as high as 120 million, roughly four times the number recalled until now. The inflators use ammonium nitrate as their propellant. This propellant has been linked to the failed airbag inflators. When it deteriorates, the propellant becomes more powerful and bursts airbag inflator housings, turning their shards into shrapnel that hurtles through a passenger compartment with sometimes deadly impact.
The newspaper said that two former Takata managers, who are still in the auto industry and who requested anonymity, reviewed and verified the information. Until today, the total number of airbags that might have been involved in the recall has not been reported. The former managers described a history of recurring quality failures at Takata’s North American manufacturing facilities. These failures were reflected time and again in documents and company emails that stretch back 15 years. The former managers explained that given the number of instances involved it is difficult for investigators to pinpoint particular inflators or types of inflators (there have been several different kinds used during this period) that may be dangerous. “You have no way of knowing,” one of the parties said. The managers have knowledge of the company’s problem-filled manufacturing history.
The airbag manufacturer declined to comment on whether there would be recalls beyond the record numbers now. Further, the company refused to speculate on whether the airbags could pose a threat to drivers. In a statement, the company said it is “cooperating fully with regulators and our automotive customers.” Further, the airbag manufacturer stated it is taking “aggressive action to advance vehicle safety.” Specifically, Takata pointed to its November settlement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) where it agreed to pay $70 million. The agreement included:
- A promise to stop making inflators using ammonium nitrate by 2018.
- A pledge to declare all remaining inflators using the propellant defective by 2019, unless it can be determined they are safe.
Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesman for NHTSA, said the agency’s probe into the inflators using ammonium nitrate is ongoing. However, NHTSA has not yet determined if there is sufficient evidence to direct carmakers to order the massive recall. “This issue will take years to resolve,” Trowbridge said.
Automotive News said that the long-running recall has overwhelmed Takata’s ability to provide replacement parts. Autoliv, a competitor, also manufacturing replacement parts to assist Takata, told regulators that it expects to continue making those parts through 2017, a full year longer than planned. More recalls will mean more delays. More recalls will also further strain the already-pressed Takata.
NHTSA has said recalls have been prioritized to target the inflators the agency believes are most dangerous. Takata’s has limited ability to make replacements. The result has been long delays for customers. So far, the inflators that have been recalled are at the top of the agency’s list because they do have a drying agent. The inflators involved have been in cars that have been operated in hot, humid regions. Ammonium nitrate deteriorates on exposure to moisture. In turn, the deterioration increases the force of the deployment, causing the housing to burst. The nine deaths that have been linked to the burst housings have occurred among the inflators that NHTSA has considered the most at risk.
The most recent death was reported on Dec. 22. Joel Knight, 52, driving his 2006 Ford Ranger pickup on a rural road in Kershaw, S.C., died from injuries received after his truck struck a cow, causing the airbag to deploy. Shrapnel from a burst airbag inflator housing pierced his neck, an attorney for the family said in a filing with NHTSA. In its piece of the filing, Takata said the inflator was manufactured at the company’s plant in Monclova, Mexico. Takata did not explicitly link the particular inflator to the death. NHTSA authorized the most recent expansion – 5.4 million inflators – following Knight’s death.
According to today’s Automotive News report, most of the inflators currently under investigation were manufactured at Takata’s central plant in Monclova or smaller plants in George and Washington state, one of the managers quoted in the story said. The manager cited Takata’s production records. The inflators that it made were supplied to more than a dozen carmakers, led by Honda. Honda was the largest recipient because Takata was its primary supplier until late last year. Indeed, Honda still holds a 1.5 percent stake in the airbag manufacturer. Honda has recalled more than 8 million defective inflators in the U.S.
Company documents consistently noted quality failures at the three plants. Those failures, a former Takata official has said, contributed to the inflator issues. The airbag-maker noted that “manufacturing variability” may have contributed to the ruptures. The manufacturing problems have been detailed in dozens of emails, spreadsheets and presentations. The records indicated problems were more pervasive and continued far longer than previously reported. Indeed, the problems existed until at least 2014. Among the issues reported were:
- Metal shavings inside some inflator parts
- Improperly welded inflator casings
- Bad propellant wafers
- Bent or damaged parts
Takata made between 260 and 285 million inflators that used ammonium nitrate as their propellant worldwide between 2000 and 2015. Nearly half of them ended up in U.S. vehicles, one of the former Takata managers said, citing the company’s production records.
An internal quality log from 2006 indicated that there were problems with inflators sold to:
The problems listed included the metal shavings and contamination, broken or missing clips and deformed or misaligned parts. A 2010 memo shows the concerns of a Takata manager about “how to control moisture” and worried the company wouldn’t be able to assure the devices were safe. Later that year, an email regarding pre-production quality testing of devices made at Monclova expressed confusion about the causes of the many defects. “I do not understand why we are failing every lot,” a manager wrote to a colleague. Company documents also indicated that Takata engineers referred to failures (when inflator housings shattered) as “ED” for “energetic disassembly.”
Much of the information contained in this article was provided by Reuters.