Takata Corporation, an international car parts manufacturer, is already involved in the auto industry’s largest-ever recall. Takata airbags are installed in a huge variety of passenger vehicles, and most of them show no obvious manufacturing error. Yet at least 150 injuries and 16 deaths have been tied to Takata airbags exploding with great force, shattering the plastic inflator module and shooting shrapnel into the vehicle compartment.
As we discussed in our Feb. 5 post, 14 automakers had already recalled some 24 million vehicles with potentially deadly Takata airbags early this year. In May, NHTSA more than doubled the recall. Noting that some 28.8 million inflators had been already been recalled at that time, NHTSA announced a consent order phasing in a recall of an additional 35-40 million inflators by 2019.
In September, Honda announced a new recall of some 668,000 vehicles in Japan because of the airbag defect. Last week Toyota said 5.8 million additional cars in Japan and abroad needed to be recalled due to the potentially deadly airbags — including some where new Takata airbags had been as replacement parts when recalled vehicles were brought in for repair.
On Oct. 31, a Texas driver sued Takata’s U.S. subsidiary and American Honda Motor Co., Inc., after her airbag exploded and seriously injured her in a low-speed car crash. Even though the collision was relatively minor, the airbag deployed, its inflator disintegrated, and debris sprayed out striking the woman in the chest and arms. She is seeking at least $1 million.
Exposure to Texas weather over several years can cause airbags to break down
Takata airbags use ammonium nitrate as a propellant. When a serious collision occurs, the propellant is meant to thrust the airbag out and open, protecting the driver from catastrophic injury. Ammonium nitrate is cheap and effective — but according to NHTSA and an independent expert, it degrades over time, especially when exposed to heat and humidity like we experience in Texas.
When the ammonium nitrate has become degraded, it can burn too quickly. This creates too much pressure for the inflator module, causing the plastic part to break into pieces. In the explosion, those pieces become shrapnel that can injure or kill the people in the car.
NHTSA says that ammonium nitrate can be lawfully used as a propellant in airbags, but only if a desiccant, or chemical drying agent, is included. Even so, ammonium nitrate airbags without desiccants are reasonably safe for several years after their initial installation.
However, there is no way to predict how quickly the degradation could occur, so drivers who have received recall notices are urged to get replacements immediately.