Former Takata Corp. engineer Mark Lillie told the Japan Times he had an “ethical duty” to expose the airbag manufacturer’s knowledge, dating back the late 1990s, that the chemical compound used as a propellant to inflate its airbags was dangerous and highly susceptible to uncontrolled explosions.
The propellant, housed in a canister in the steering wheel or behind the passenger dash, rapidly generates gas to inflate the airbag cushion during a crash. In 1998, Takata began experimenting with ammonium nitrate, an inexpensive chemical, commonly used in fertilizers, hoping to harness and stabilize its explosive characteristics, and cheapen the cost of its airbags. Other manufacturers avoided the chemical because it degraded too easily when exposed to moisture and heat making it highly unstable during ignition creating rapid gas generation and much greater pressure than needed to inflate the airbag. Instead of inflating the airbag and protecting occupants in a crash, the excessive pressure can rupture the canister exploding metal fragments that tear into and damage the airbag fabric – and occupants.
Lillie, a propellant engineer at Takata from 1994 until 1999, retired from the company in part because of his frustration over the company’s intent to use the dangerous propellant, supplied information and documents to Congress, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the public, that showed he and others at Takata predicted the dangers and tried to convince the managers to use another compound. In an interview with Bloomberg news Lillie said “[Takata] never had any evidence, never any test results, never any test reports, nothing to substantiate they had overcome” the hurdles needed to stabilize the compound. “At the meeting, I literally said that if we go forward with this, somebody will be killed.” Although the decision to come forward was “very hard,” Lillie felt it was necessary because it was a “life safety issue.”
Currently, Takata airbags have been linked to 23 deaths worldwide and more than 260 injuries. In 2014, as the injuries and deaths were made public, Takata filed for bankruptcy and in 2017 and was purchased by Key Safety Systems, with the provision that its airbag division continue operations until it completes manufacturing of replacement airbag.
Last year, government regulators concluded Takata repeatedly manipulated test data to give the appearance that the ammonium nitrate was safe even while concealing tests that resulted in ruptured canisters. Documents produced in litigation have shown that Takata’s poor manufacturing and quality controls contributed to the dangers, from sub-standard chemical handling procedures to mis-manufactured and poorly designed canisters that increased propellant exposure to moisture.