By Bill Saporito
November 21, 2014

Even the normal deployment of an airbag is a violent event. It is initiated by a controlled explosion inside an inflator setting off a chemical reaction that forms nitrogen gas that rapidly expands the airbag, propelling it toward your head at speeds up to 200 mph, all within 20 to 30 milliseconds. That’s the kind of violence needed to dissipate the energy being created by a car involved in a crash. But this explosion shouldn’t hurl shards of metal toward the driver’s face and neck, which has happened in some cars with airbags designed by Takata, a major safety system supplier to the auto industry. Here’s everything you need to know about the widespread recall:

How severe is this problem?
There have been five fatalities linked to Takata’s airbags and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has already issued a recall of 7.8 million cars from 10 manufacturers that have the suspect airbags installed. All are relatively old cars, from model years 2000 to 2008.

How can I find out if my car is affected?
You can call the NHTSA’s hotline : 1-888-327-4236. Or you can go to its website. You will need your vehicle’s identification number (VIN), which can usually be found on the front left of the dashboard near the window.

Why are the cars being recalled?
The propellant Takata used to set off the airbag’s inflator—ammonium nitrate—apparently becomes unstable in humid climates and degrades. The explosion triggering the airbag becomes less controllable, even fatally so. That’s why the original recall focused on cars operating in humid areas of the country including Florida, Puerto Rico, and parts of Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico. But now the Department of Transportation and NHTSA have called on Takata to issue a national recall for all cars that have the suspect airbag inflators. NHTSA has also demanded more information from Takata about whether and when it knew about the design and manufacturing flaws, with a due date of Dec. 5. The company said it will comply.

Are these the only dangerous airbags?
Three companies supply most of the world’s airbags; Takata, TRW and Autoliv. Only Takata’s airbags are in question, though, because only Takata used ammonium nitrate as a propellant (and it no longer does).

Why did they use ammonium nitrate in their airbags?
Ammonium nitrate provides more bang in a smaller volume than other propellants, which allows the company to offer a more compact device to manufacturers. That’s a potential competitive advantage. In a story in the New York Times outlining Takata’s switch to ammonium nitrate in 2000, the company denied using ammonium nitrate to save costs.

What is Congress doing about the recalls?
At a hearing in Washington D.C. on Thursday, Takata officials were eviscerated by members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee over the faulty airbags and the company’s failure to notify NHTSA about them. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida demanded that automakers provide loaner cars or rentals to consumers who were waiting to get replacement airbags in their own cars “by virtue of the fear that has already gripped the public,” he said. Honda is already doing that.

Nelson also displayed a large photo of the damage done to the face of one woman, former Air Force Lt. Stephanie Erdman. She was severely injured in one eye by the flying shrapnel produced by an exploding Takata airbag after the 2002 Honda Civic she was driving was involved in a fender bender. “What happened to me was gruesome,” she testified, and called out Honda for allowing her to drive a defective car. “They did nothing to warn me,” she said.

Does Takata acknowledge its responsibility for injuries and deaths?
That’s exactly what Nevada Sen. Dean Heller asked during the Senate hearing. But Takata executives were both evasive and tongue-tied by language issues. Takata’s Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president for global quality assurance said via an interpreter that the company recognized three victims’ cases were linked to the Takata airbags but said two others were being investigated. So let’s take the three, said Heller. Does Takata take full responsibility for those three deaths? “My understanding is our products in these accidents worked abnormally,” said Shimizu, before stipulating, “From that sense, yes.”

Do regulators also deserve some blame?
The Senate committee member faulted the NHTSA for not being able to stay ahead of defects. Heller, a car enthusiast, chafed about the length of time the agency waits from when a defect is found and until a recall is ordered. “NHTSA is not recognizing the defects fast enough, he said. To help the agency speed up a bit, Heller and several other members of the committee are proposing a Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act that would encourage auto industry employees to identify defects to NHTSA with the prospect of collecting a share of any fines of more than $1 million.

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