What do BMW, Daimler AG, Fiat, Ford, GM, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Saab, Subaru, Tata Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen have in common?
Aside from comprising some of the most popular and successful automakers in the world, these companies all opted to equip their cars with deadly airbags in order to cut costs.
At least 14 Americans are dead and more than 100 are injured as a result of the defective airbags produced by Japanese automotive supplier Takata Corporation. Over 100 million Takata airbags have been installed in American cars over the last two decades, resulting in what is now the largest auto safety recall in history.
Takata began producing airbags with the highly volatile compound ammonium nitrate in the late 1990s to remedy its own financial woes. Takata’s previous line of airbags was linked to dozens of eye injuries, and in 1997, a Takata plant in Washington underwent a series of accidental explosions. Ammonium nitrate allowed Takata to produce airbags at a much lower cost, and grow more competitive in the automotive market.
When GM executives discovered that they could purchase airbags from Takata for 30% cheaper than from their regular supplier, the Swedish-American company Autoliv, GM put pressure on Autoliv to match Takata’s price.
“We just said, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’re not going to use it,’” said Robert Taylor, former head chemist at Autoliv, after learning of Takata’s use of ammonium nitrate.
“When we lit it off, it totally destroyed the fixture,” said Autoliv chemist Chris Hock, describing his tests of the Takata airbag. “It turned it into shrapnel.”
Other suppliers attempted and failed to compete with Takata as well. TRW used ammonium nitrate in its airbags for a period in the early 2000s, but only with the addition of safeguards to protect against the compound’s volatility.
The 2004 United States Council on Automotive Research identified ammonium nitrate as a safety risk if exposed to heat or humidity, and called for evaluations of airbag inflaters produced with the compound to test for “resistance to temperature aging in an environment of high humidity.”
Even safety evaluations could not make Takata airbags safe. One engineer reported to the New York Times that workers manipulated safety tests in a Georgia factory in order to get defective airbag inflaters approved. When he notified his superiors of his coworkers’ behavior, the engineer was told, “not to come back to any more meetings.” He left Takata shortly afterwards.
It was not until 2008 that Honda began recalling models that were equipped with defective airbags, some of which were found to have “as high as a 50 percent chance of a dangerous airbag inflater rupture in a crash,” according to US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Honda was the first automotive company to issue a recall.
As of this month, 64 million vehicles have been recalled due to the deadly Takata airbags.
Takata lost $130 million last year. In June, CEO Shigehisa Takada announced that he would be stepping down from his position. Still, Takata’s downfall will not help the many lives that have been affected or lost due to its defective products.
In civil lawsuits filed by victims of the ammonium nitrate airbag, Takata has been quick to settle. After the family of Patricia Mincey, whose spine was crushed by a defective airbag, settled its case with Takata for an unspecified sum, company spokesman Robert Rendine announced that “the matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”
If you believe that your vehicle may be on the recall list, please do not hesitate to get it inspected. Enter your Vehicle Identification Number on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website to check for a recall on your model.
Sources: “Recalls Spotlight: Takata Air Bags Recalls,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Tabuchi, Hiroko, “A Cheaper Airbag, and Takata’s Road to a Deadly Crisis,” The New York Times, 26 August 2016.
Tabuchi, Hiroko, “Takata Settles Airbag Suit, Averting Testimony by Its Chief,” The New York Times, 15 July 2016.
Tabuchi, Hiroko, “U.S. Warns Honda and Acura Owners to Replace Airbags,” The New York Times, 30 June 2016.