In 1998, it appeared that Takata had the next big propellant for airbags in the late stages of development. Airbags of the time relied on toxic propellants that could release hazardous chemicals upon deployment. The tetrazole-based propellant was believed to be of a reliable and safe composition and was expected to be used widely in the company’s airbags in the 2000s. One engineer characterized the new propellant as giving the company a “new technological edge.” The tetrazole-based propellant was not found to have any major problems and was marketed under the brand Envirosure for a time.
However, the company never deployed the tetrazole-based propellant widely. For reasons and motivations which remain disputed, Takata did change its propellant formulation in 2001. In 2001, the company changed to an ammonium nitrate-based propellant. The company claims that the change was driven by research that showed this compound produced the gas used in inflation efficiently and with few emissions. Takata states that the move to an ammonium nitrate propellant allowed the company to make airbag inflators smaller and lighter while improving manufacturing safety.
Questions About the Safety and Appropriateness of this Airbag Propellant
However, a number of former Takata engineers and experts in related fields have questioned Takata’s use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant. Two former Takata engineers told the New York Times that they had concerns about the switch due to the volatile nature of the compound. Mark Lillie, a former senior engineer at Takata stated, “It’s a basic design flaw that predisposes this propellant to break apart, and therefore risk catastrophic failure in an [sic] inflater.” Another engineer remembers that the explosion risk was a matter that was addressed, but the engineers had concluded that the explosion risk could be mitigated if the propellant stayed in the right state of matter. Ammonium nitrate can cycle among 5 different phases. Changes in temperature, humidity, and other factors can result in phase changes to the ammonium nitrate that can cause an explosion or irregular ballistic consequences.
A different expert interviewed by the New York Times, Paul Worsey, an expert in explosives engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, reached a similar conclusion. He said that the compound is certainly cheap, but it is more appropriate for use in large demolitions. He stated, “It shouldn’t be used in airbags.”
NHTSA May Request a Special Order Seeking Recall of All Airbags Using Ammonium Nitrate
Senators Blumenthal and Markey are now urging Takata to recall all airbags produced by Takata using the ammonium nitrate propellant. While the Senators have long expressed concern over the Takata airbag recalls, this new letter was spurred by a side airbag explosion in a 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan in June. This incident was particularly concerning for a number of reasons. First, it is another occurrence of an inflator defect outside of the “high-humidity zone.” While high humidity makes the problem more likely to occur, it is now clear that the problem can occur in nearly any type of climate. Second, this incident represented the first reported problem with a side curtain airbag. Previous incidents involved problems with driver and passenger-side airbags.
The letter to Takata by the Senators stated, “In light of the most recent incident, which did not occur in one of the regions originally designated as ‘high humidity,’ and which involved a 2015 vehicle not currently subject to recall, we urge you to voluntarily recall all vehicles containing Takata airbags.” Currently, the company is still manufacturing and shipping airbags using ammonium nitrate in their inflators. However, while maintaining the safety of its products, the company has promised to switch away from the chemical due to its “bad reputation.”
While NHTSA has yet to take action, an NHTSA special order may be the next step if Takata fails to address the Senator’s concerns. NHTSA has previously fined Takata under a special order after the company failed to cooperate with the regulator. If NHTSA does decide to issue a special order it is likely that millions of additional vehicles will need repair. In fact, vehicles that have already undergone repair for the earlier airbag recalls would probably need to be repaired once more.
Takata currently has until September 3rd to provide the NHTSA additional information regarding the Tiguan airbag incident. While this request for information is currently voluntary in nature, NHTSA may decide to place additional pressure on the company if its disclosures are incomplete or insufficient.
Injured by a Defective Takata Airbag?
If you have been injured by a defective airbag manufactured by Takata or other recalled products, you should not be forced to pay for the injuries inflicted by the company. Evidence increasingly shows that Takata and its engineers were aware of the dangers posed by ammonium nitrate since, at least, the late 1990s, but the company decided to use the propellant regardless. To schedule a free and confidential personal injury consultation contact the experienced lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm by calling (215) 246-9000.