Researchers Determine Causes Behind Takata Airbag Defect

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Up until recently, the responses to the Takata airbag defect were guided solely by the theories of company officials, regulators, and car and truck makers utilizing Takata-manufactured airbags. The often grisly and violent deaths experienced by at least 10 drivers in vehicles equipped with Takata-produced airbags, however, spurred action by regulators. Many of these individuals lost their lives in accidents that were highly survivable but for the metal shrapnel projectiles launched during airbag deployment. These pieces of metal caused grisly personal injuries including one fatality where police originally attributed the death to a violent homicide. However, researchers now believe they have uncovered the exact cause of the excessive force in some Takata airbag deployments. While scientists still must perform more detailed, long-term studies it is believed that this information will assist automakers and regulators devise a more responsive and comprehensive recall. While this new information is a positive development, regulators and others now believe that there is a high likelihood that a significantly expanded recall is necessary.

An Ammonium Nitrate Propellant Was Not the Sole Propellant Option Available to Takata

Takata is the only company that makes use of an ammonium nitrate compound for its airbag inflators. Ammonium nitrate replaced earlier versions of compounds used in inflators that were found to emit toxic fumes upon deployment of the airbag. In the late 1990s, Takata also developed a tetrazole-based propellant for use in its airbags that was widely viewed as the apparent air to earlier propellant formulations. In fact, the company apparently marketed the propellant under the Envirosure brand for a brief period. However, despite findings that the tetrazole propellant was safe and effective and company pronouncements that the propellant would give the company a “new technological edge,” the compound never gained traction.

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Rather in the early to mid-2000s, Takata changed direction and instead started using an ammonium nitrate-based propellant in 2001. Up until this point, the chemical was most commonly known for use in demolitions in the construction and mining industry. Paul Worsey an explosives engineer at the Missouri University of Science and Technology opined to the New York Times that ammonium nitrate, “…should not be used in airbags.”

Known Problems with Ammonium Nitrate as a Propellant

According to a number of engineers formerly employed by Takata and interviewed by the New York Times, the problems with ammonium nitrate are well-known. Furthermore, the issues come down to the basic properties of the compound. Outside of highly controlled conditions,  ammonium nitrate is a volatile compound that can cycle among five different phases. The phase changes are caused by variations in temperature and humidity among other factors. These phase changes are known to affect the behavior of the compound. Effects include a more violent explosion or unpredictable ballistics.

The lynchpin in Takata’s gambit to use the cost-effective ammonium nitrate in its airbag inflators rested on the belief that its engineers could devise a method to keep the propellant within a highly controlled environment. By controlling the environmental conditions experienced throughout the lifetime of the substance, engineers apparently believed that the phase-change risk and resultant consequences could be minimized or eliminated.

Airbag Defect Also Involves Inflator Casing Design

Unfortunately, as is now well-known, the risk regarding explosions with excessive force was only mitigated with limited success. A variety of explanations have been forwarded to explain the inflators defects, but it appears that all of these factors could have played a role.

Scientists working for the Independent Testing Coalition — a joint-venture backed by automakers BMW, Fiat Chrysler (FCA), Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota —    now believe that an array of factors combined to create the current defect. The coalition hired Orbital ATK, a company that typically engages in research regarding rocket propellants, to determine the exact cause of the problems.

Orbital determined that there were three chief causes that contributed to the airbag deployments with excessive force:

  • The ammonium nitrate compound lacked a desiccant – the company determined the ammonium nitrate compound utilized by Takata did not include a desiccant. A desiccant is any substance that can absorb moisture. To consumers, the most familiar version of a substance like this is probably the silica gel packets included absorbing moisture in many consumer goods prior to sale. The absence of a moisture-absorbing component in the propellant compound likely exacerbated the effects of the two following items.
  • The manufacturing and design of the inflator allowed moisture to enter – The design of the inflator is also at fault. Orbital also determined that is was likely that the inflator design allowed water and moisture to seep into the inflator housing. Furthermore, problems with quality control at Takata’s Monclava and other North American production plants are also well-documented.
  • Long-term exposure to heat and high humidity The study also found that long-term exposure to high heat and humidity played a role. Furthermore, a large temperature difference in day and night temperatures also played a role presumably due to condensation that can form inside the inflator’s allegedly defective design.  

While the testing company did not elaborate on what “long-term exposure” actually means, it presumably means more than a single occurrence, however, the lack of a desiccant in the compound may call that view into question. In any case, it is believed that researchers will now work to the conditions of long-term exposure in the laboratory.

A recent statement by Takata indicated that its own internal testing was consistent with that done Orbital and a third test carried out by the Fraunhofer Group. The company did not explain why these earlier findings were not previously publicized.

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Recall of Up to 90 Million Additional Vehicles May Be Required

Despite the discovery of the root cause of the airbag problem, the fallout from the defect may get worse before it gets better. According to a recent Reuters report, National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) officials and other regulators are now considering a massive expansion of the recall. They believe that up to 120 million inflators installed in cars and trucks in the U.S. may need to be replaced. That would result in a new recall of about 70 million to 90 million airbag inflators. Furthermore, a number of airbag inflators already recalled and replaced with a different variation of the ammonium nitrate propellant may also need to be replaced again.

In a November 2015 consent agreement with NHTSA, the company has already committed to stop its use of the propellant by 2018. Furthermore, the company agreed to replace all ammonium nitrate inflators if it cannot conclusively prove that the compound is safe.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Report Charges Company Manipulated Testing Data

Recently held proceedings in the Senate have charged that the company may have manipulated testing and quality control data to conceal problems with the airbag inflators. A recent Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation report titled Total Recall: Internal Documents Detail Takata’s Broken Safety Culture and the Need for a More Effective Recall Process charges that internal Takata documents reveal safety testing data manipulations and an ineffective safety culture at the company. In one incident cited in the report, a director at Takata wrote, “The basis for limiting the 2002 recall population is false. It is a blatant misrepresentation of the production records” and “will either generate unnecessary recall population or fail to recall a product that is suspect.” The director characterized this act as a “violation of our moral obligation to protect the public.” Furthermore, the director wrote that he raised these issues with the Senior Vice President of Quality Assurance who refused to attend any meeting where the basis for the inflator recall would be discussed.

Senators Show Increasing Impatience with Takata’s Airbag Explanations

In a sign that Senators’ patience with Takata’s delays and explanations may finally reach a limit after more than a decade of deference, Senator Bill Nelson had harsh words for both the airbag manufacturer and NHTSA. He characterized the recall as, “…auto manufacturers…installing new live grenades into people’s cars as replacements for the old live grenades.” Nelson furthermore stated that is was puzzling why NHTSA was permitting Takata to continue to produce the inflators.

Not surprisingly, a representative for Takata took umbrage at the remarks by the Senator. The spokesman called the Nelson report and statements “are entirely inexcusable and will not be tolerated or repeated. In light of the company confirmed testing data discussed above, Levy somewhat confusingly elaborated by stating that “Issues with validation testing of the original phase stabilized ammonium nitrate inflators are not the root cause of the field ruptures.” Furthermore, Levy also stated that “…these issues are totally incompatible with Takata’s engineering standards and protocols.”

Injured by an Airbag? Contact a Philadelphia Product Liability Lawyer from The Reiff Law Firm

Experienced an accident or death of a loved one due to a Takata airbag defect? Contact a  Philadelphia product liability attorney of The Reiff Law Firm. To schedule a free and confidential consultation call us at (215) 246-9000 or contact us online.

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