JAPANESE airbag maker Takata, which supplies car makers including Toyota, Nissan, Fiat- Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, BMW and Mazda, finally admitted in late May its units indeed do have a fault and may be to blame for up to seven deaths and more than 100 injuries.
This has led to the biggest recall in automotive history, affecting 53 million vehicles globally – and growing daily – including at least 750,000 in Australia.
There has been no repeat here of the spate of reports coming out of North America and elsewhere, including a death in Malaysia in late 2014, where shrapnel was projected from the Takata airbags on their deployment (see sidebar).
The company’s admission on May 19 followed more than a decade of concerns about its airbags – and only after the US National Highway Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA) began issuing daily fines for a lack of co-operation in resolving the issue. The first reported death was in 2008 in a Honda, which issued a recall after investigations.
Takata is accused of modifying its products the same year to brush aside any responsibility, while denying there was an issue.
Some reports suggest Takata may have been aware of a potential problem as early as 2004, and only mounting pressure from the NHTSA finally tipped it over. Japanese business culture of avoiding such humiliation appears to have also played a role in the long-term denial.
How long will it take to fix more than 53 million airbags? Toyota estimates it will take into 2016, at least, to fix the five million of its models affected globally, and in many cases the parts simply aren’t available.
That’s why, for some manufacturers affected with Australian-delivered vehicles, there is yet to be an official recall aren t on recall.gov.au. In order to issue a recall in Australia, there needs to be enough parts available for it to proceed and be made official.
Stateside, manufacturers can be forced to accelerate the remedy program if authorities deem it’s not being carried out quickly enough.
INCREDIBLE as it may seem, at the time of writing Takata does not fully understand the fault, and is still investigating.
The company has been criticised for using ammonium nitrate as its propellant, which has been described as “unbelievably cheap” yet “highly volatile”, particularly in humid climates.
This is the root of what’s known about the problem so far: in humid conditions, the properties of the gas change, producing an explosion of greater force than necessary.
Corrosion of the airbag inflator canister has also occurred, producing metal fragments that – thanks to the larger explosion – are shot into the car’s cabin, with reportedly tragic consequences.