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Airbags: Perfecting the Technology

Takata Corporation, founded in Japan over 70 years ago, is dedicated to being the leading automotive ‘safety supplier’ in the world.  With annual sales in billions of dollars and a customer list including most automakers, few would deny it this accolade.

But reports of rupturing airbag inflators sold the world over are proving to be a serious problem. It may be said that there are not many instances—the National Highway Traffic Safety Association [NHTSA] has estimated that annually, only around .05% of the more than 200 million cars and light trucks registered in the US experience an airbag deployment.

Many of the airbag deployments involve Takata products and most function properly.  The number of airbag-related injuries is relatively low—in the hundreds.  Some sources say there have been six deaths allegedly connected to airbag deployment.  Nevertheless, as Takata spokespersons insist, “each instance of an airbag failure is terrible and unacceptable.”

Takata has been wrestling with this for the past seven years.  In late November 2014, Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata’s Senior Vice President for Global Quality Assurance outlined the history to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.  At that time he broke it into four phases.

Phase 1 began in 2008 when Honda, after three incidents of inflator ruptures in 2007, in consultation with Takata, initiated a series of national recalls of its vehicles equipped with Takata driver-side airbag inflators manufactured exclusively for Honda in 2000 and 2001.  Takata worked with Honda for the next four years on testing the returned inflators and reviewing its entire inflator manufacturing process. The reported result: —an expansion of the Honda recall.

Phase 2 began in 2010 when reports received of inflator ruptures occurring between 2009 and 2012 involving passenger-side airbags manufactured from 2000 to 2002 prompted Takata to recall vehicles primarily sold in Asia.  In 2013, several automakers announced global recalls based on “specific manufacturing and product-handling issues involving inflator propellant, including issues relating to humidity in the manufacturing process.”

Phase 3 began in 2013/2014 prompted by several additional incidents of inflator ruptures involving both driver and passenger-side airbag inflators manufactured after 2002.  Almost all of these incidents involved vehicles in areas of high absolute humidity such as Puerto Rico and South Florida and that were at least six years old at the crash time.

Then in June 2014—Phase 4—ten automakers announced they would focus their recalls in areas of the US that experience higher levels of heat and absolute humidity.  In late November/early December 2014, the NHSTA urged automakers to expand the regional recalls to a national recall of vehicles equipped with certain types of Takata driver-side airbag inflators manufactured from 2002 to 2008 and called on Takata to declare these inflators defective.

On May 13, 2015 (Phase 5 perhaps?)—Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. announced a new recall of various models manufactured later, between 2003 and 2007, described as ‘investigative’, and ‘preventive’, and not linked to any injuries.  Toyota now thinks the inflators may be degrading over time.  Phase 5 has brought the recall total to about 25 million vehicles.  And it may still go higher with Honda saying it is preparing a ‘fresh recall’. 

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