Takata Airbags a Repeating Problem?

Issues with Takata Airbags

Defects in the design or manufacturing of consumer products are always found. Diligent manufacturers will discover them through testing and refining their products before selling them to the public. However, far too often, defects are not corrected until after injuries or deaths to users of the products force recall, replacements, re-designs, and other corrective actions. Usually, the corrective action involves actually changing the product to something safer. Sometimes, though, manufacturers rely upon “Band-Aid” solutions that merely hide or postpone the problem — this type of behavior may make Takata airbags a repeating problem.

History of the Takata Airbag Problem

Takata Corporation — a major auto parts manufacturer based in Japan and with facilities in several countries – began making vehicle airbags in 1988. By the late 1990s, the company had become one of the largest manufacturers of airbags worldwide. In the 2000s, however, Takata airbags began to exhibit a troubling pattern of exploding unexpectedly. This was due to airbags deployed suddenly and spontaneously — not as the result of an impact as intended — and sometimes deployed more “explosively” than intended, sending shards of plastic and metal into vehicle interiors and occupants.

Accumulating evidence of problems with Takata airbags led to several voluntary recalls by automakers, including Honda, Chrysler, Ford, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda, in 2013 and 2014. Eventually, a much broader recall was announced late in 2014 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Over time, tens of millions of units were recalled — by 2014, Takata had roughly 20% of the market in passenger vehicle airbags, and the recalls were proportionately large.

Nature of the Problem

Airbags are designed to inflate extremely rapidly to provide a safety cushion between vehicle occupants and the interiors of their vehicles. To do this, an airbag is supplied with a small amount of chemical propellant that rapidly inflates the airbag. Different chemicals have been used for this purpose over time and by different manufacturers, including sodium azide, guanidine nitrate, and tetrazole. These chemicals have similar characteristics of combusting rapidly — they are commonly used in other applications such as pyrotechnics, solid rocket fuels, and explosives. Still, they also have other properties that make them more or less attractive to airbag manufacturers.

Although Takata began making vehicle airbags in the 1980s, in the late 1990s, the company decided to use a different chemical propellant in its airbags – ammonium nitrate — that had one desirable characteristic to Takata. It was much cheaper than other propellants, as little as one-tenth the cost of some safer options. Ammonium nitrate is produced in huge quantities as a fertilizer for agriculture and explosive for mining industries. It also became a favorite of terrorists when mixed with fuel oil to make huge car bombs. Unfortunately for Takata and its victims, another property of cheap ammonium nitrate is that it can become unstable over time, sometimes exploding spontaneously or with much more force than initially calculated. This was the scientific cause of the faulty airbag explosions.

How was the Problem Discovered?

In addition to recalls, the exploding Takata airbags have resulted in numerous lawsuits on behalf of victims. The recalls and the lawsuits have revealed much evidence about how the problem arose and how Takata planned to deal with it. As early as 2014, Takata was pointing the finger at faulty propellant batches prepared at its Mexico plant. The company promised to fix the manufacturing processes to avoid recurring problems. At that point, however, Takata hadn’t revealed that the cheaper, more problematic ammonium nitrate – not its manufacturing process- was the source of its airbag problems.

Over time, ammonium nitrate becomes more unstable, especially in hotter environments. “Fixing” their propellant manufacturing processes could not change this — it’s the essential nature of the substance. Although Takata kept saying that the airbag problem was isolated to their Mexican facility and its defective propellant manufacturing, it was eventually revealed through documents and testimony brought forth in litigation that the company had known all along that ammonium nitrate airbags would become progressively more unstable and dangerous over time, and that Takata chose to manufacture with that propellant anyhow because it gave the company such a significant edge in cost competition.

Why Might Takata Airbags Be a Repeating Problem?

Millions of old Takata airbags are in unrepaired vehicles, just in the United States alone. Millions more are in vehicles in other countries, some of which have much less effective consumer product recall laws than the U.S. has. When or if a particular airbag may spontaneously explode is purely a roll of the dice — although hot and humid environments may cause the propellant to degrade more quickly, living in a colder area is no guarantee of safety.

Further, the U.S. government has never banned ammonium nitrate in replacement airbags. If a vehicle owner with a defective Takata airbag gets a replacement, they will likely get a new one with the same problematic propellant, perhaps doing nothing but resetting the clock on a ticking time bomb.

View this video for more details on the NHTSA recall of Takata airbags:

Sacramento Products Liability Lawyer

I’m Ed Smith, a Sacramento products liability lawyer of over 38 years. With millions of old Takata airbags still on the road and millions more replacement Takata airbags – perhaps a repeating problem – on the road, it’s still possible for you or a loved one to be injured by one of these defective products. If that has happened, you may be able to submit a claim for financial compensation for your injuries. To talk with one of our attorneys and receive free and friendly advice, call us at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400. We also have a form available if you prefer to reach us that way.

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Photo Attribution:  Marcel Langthim from Pixabay.

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