In 2008, some drivers suffered unnecessary injuries after a wreck because their airbags malfunctioned. Well, not so much “malfunctioned” as “exploded violently and sent shrapnel everywhere.” Tens of thousands of airbags were recalled, which meant car dealers and manufacturers had to go in and replace them. With that taken care of, the airbag manufacturer hoped to go back to business as usual.
But Takata wasn’t so lucky.
Since then, tens of millions of airbags have been recalled, ones used in many different brands and makes of cars. Worldwide, 11 people have been killed by the defects, including 10 people in the United States. In addition, hundreds of drivers have been injured. Most of these recalls came into effect over the past year, with 5 million cars being recalled since last summer. However, that number was just expanded to 40 million. That development makes this recall the largest in history. And some believe the issue is far from resolved.
What Causes the Defects
Before a few days ago, no one was sure what was causing the defects. A prevailing theory was an issue with the manufacturing of the bag material itself. But the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration recently revealed the true cause: the propellant. After being exposed to long periods of heat and moisture, the chemicals that cause the airbag to expand degrade, which results in a violent reaction when the airbag is deployed. What’s worse, it can also cause the airbag to deploy unexpectedly.
There are certain drivers that are more at risk than others. It takes time for the ammonium nitrate propellant to degrade, so older cars are more are more likely to be affected. In addition, heat and humidity exacerbate the issue. With this potentially fatal combination, drivers of older cars in North Carolina and the rest of the southeast are especially at risk.
How the Recall Works
In efforts to contain the volatility of the ammonium nitrate, Takata began adding a drying agent to their airbags. This practice began after the original recalls in 2008. For now, the recall includes all airbags that do not contain this drying agent. Takata has two years to replace the faulty airbags, and it will be the cars at the highest risk that will be taken care of first.
However, federal investigators have also discovered that newer cars are also susceptible to exploding airbags. However, it will be a few years before the propellant degrades enough to become a real issue. Even so, Takata has until 2019 to replace airbags that were installed due to those earlier recalls.
While this works in theory, actually replacing the airbags is something of a nightmare. To begin with, the parts needed for manufacturers to install the new airbags aren’t exactly abundant. In addition, there are now millions of people wanting to get their car repaired now rather than later — after all, who wouldn’t want a potentially deadly component of their car removed? But the technicians for manufacturers are only human, and can only work so fast. Some manufacturers have made loaner cars available, but that doesn’t cover every driver.
The Future of Takata
As the NHTSA investigation has dug into Takata’s past, they have noticed some disturbing details. In 2004, the first case of an airbag rupturing was documented by Takata. However, the company did not notify officials or take any other action. Former engineers for the company said they retrieved airbags from scrapyards for testing, and when the airbags failed, the data was destroyed. To make matters worse, unsealed documents have shown that Takata has been manipulating data since 2000 to meet industry standards.
With this new information being revealed, in addition to the 40 million cars being recalled, Takata shares have tanked. Since the original major recall was announced last year, shares have dropped by 80 percent. By the time the issue is completely resolved in 2019, many believe Takata will be filing for bankruptcy. Besides the cost of the recall itself, they have been dealt hefty fines. However, they may not dissolve completely, instead relying on their other products like seat belts to build their business again.
While their other products have had no issues, Tanaka has a long journey of reputation building ahead of them. Their name conjures images of danger, and that likely won’t go away anytime soon. However, this recall has had some positive side effects. We now know that ammonium nitrate is not a safe propellant for airbags, no matter the manufacturer. And that means industry-wide innovation to create a better product.
Nearly every major car manufacturer, including luxury vehicles, have been affected by this recall. Chances are, you are driving a car that has a Takata airbag. While you may not be in immediate danger, it never hurts to check to see if your car is on the recall list. You can see all the cars that have been recalled here.