Japanese airbag supplier Takata has cut a deal with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct “a regional field action” in Florida, Puerto Rico and other states to replace airbag inflators that may explode in hot, humid climates.
But the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation has not yet closed an investigation into Takata airbag inflators – wisely, given that exploding airbags have resulted at least two deaths, and more than 20 injuries when occupants were lacerated by flying shrapnel. They have also caused eight auto manufacturers to launch 17 recalls since February 2001.
Late last month, seven manufacturers, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, BMW, Ford and Chrysler announced another round of repairs. Toyota alone recalled 2.3 million 2003-2004 Corollas, Matrix and Tundra and Sequoia vehicles along with 2002-4 Lexus SC 430. But, the total tally isn’t in because most manufacturers haven’t yet identified the size of their repair populations.
According to documents filed with NHTSA, ODI asked Takata to come in for a meeting in May, to discuss the current crop of inflator ruptures. There were a total of six – three came into the agency via its Vehicle Owner Questionnaire system. Two were identified by Takata; the sixth explosion occurred on a 2002 Toyota. At that meeting, Takata explained the research it had been conducting into the problem, and theorized this time that exposure to high humidity “in conjunction with potential processing issues during certain manufacturing time periods that may influence aging stability.”
This is a new explanation for an old problem. Over various recalls, the Takata airbag explosions have been blamed on:
- Excessive internal pressure caused by the handling of the propellant during airbag inflator module assembly.
- The process of pressing the propellant into wafers before assembling the inflators.
- Manufacturing processes that were out of spec.
- Propellant produced in 2001-2002 calendar years that was out of spec.
- Inflator propellant wafers, manufactured at Takata's Moses Lake, Washington plant, that were produced with “an insufficient compaction force.”
- Propellant wafers produced at Takata's Monclova, Mexico plant that “may have been exposed to an uncontrolled environment involving excessive moisture.”
A couple of weeks later, NHTSA proposed that Takata support a limited “field action” to replace potentially suspect inflators in vehicles originally sold in or currently registered in Florida and Puerto Rico. ODI proposed that the repair population be based on the dates of the six incidents with a 12-month buffer before and after, to ensure that all of the problematic inflators were remedied. Takata, agreed and threw in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, “based on the high levels of absolute humidity in those areas and other states with similarly high levels of absolute humidity,” the supplier said.
On June 11, the agency made its investigation official with a Preliminary Evaluation. The Opening Resume mentioned three injuries, characterizing them as “minor.”
Minor? Really? The victim of the 2005 Honda rupture in August 2013 lost an eye and suffered severe lacerations requiring 100 stitches.
While Takata and NHTSA try to sort out the root cause of the most recent explosions, the supplier will replace PSDI and PSDI-4 inflators, used in driver-side air bags, manufactured between January 1, 2004 and June 30, 2007, and PSPI, PSPI-L and SPI inflators, used in passenger-side air bags, manufactured between June 2000 and August 2004.
NHTSA has already assigned recall numbers to some manufacturers who confirmed their participation in a regional field action. But they don’t call airbags that explode in high heat and humidity, spraying metal debris a “defect” – despite the serious injuries these airbags continue to
In a letter to the agency, Takata said:
“Since the currently available information does not indicate that any Takata inflators-other than those in vehicles that were previously recalled- contain a safety defect, neither Takata nor the vehicle manufacturers conducting these field actions would be expected to admit that its products contain such a defect.”
Regardless of whether Takata or NHTSA calls the airbags “defective,” and regardless of whether all of the potentially dangerous airbags have actually been recalled yet, Florida and Puerto Rico consumers should be told – immediately — about the problem. With the arrival of summer and the humidity it brings to Florida, automakers ought to be making every effort to pinpoint their repair populations and issue timely warnings so that owners can have them replaced before they rupture.
Merely waiting to see what develops as more airbags fail, continuing the “rolling recalls” for months or years, notifying owners with a snail-mail postcard and hoping it ends up in the right hands would be, we believe, ethically inadequate. And one day, potential jurors may agree, when they are asked to consider fault in a death or serious injury case caused by dangerous airbags and manufacturers indifferent to their customers’ exposure to them.