Takata’s redesign to address humidity problems, which hasn’t been reported before, may solve one of the mysteries of the auto-safety crisis.
Takata, the air-bag maker that agreed to the largest automotive recall in U.S. history Tuesday, began changing the safety devices in 2008 to reduce the risk that humidity would cause them to deploy abnormally, three people familiar with the matter said. The timing of that change may raise difficult questions for the company.
The company changed its propellant mix to mitigate the effect of humidity after Honda announced the first recall related to the flaw in 2008, the people said, asking not to be named because they aren’t authorized to talk with the media. High humidity has been linked to degradation of the propellant, increasing the risk that air bags may rupture and shoot fragments at people in the vehicle.
Takata’s redesign to address the humidity problems, which hasn’t been reported before, may solve one of the mysteries of the auto-safety crisis. The company, which agreed Tuesday to expand U.S. recalls to include about 34 million cars, has repeatedly said its current products are safe, yet it hasn’t explained publicly the basis for its confidence. The majority of the vehicles recalled globally have air bags that were made before 2008.
How to check
Owners can key in their vehicle id number at https:
//vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/ to see if their car is part of the recall. The number is stamped on the dashboard near the driver’s side windshield and also can be found on state auto registration documents. It may take weeks before all the identification numbers are entered into the database.
The New York Times
The redesign may add to scrutiny of Takata’s timing, since the introduction of a safer propellant mix could imply the previous mix was less safe. Takata didn’t recall additional cars with the older air bags until about seven months later. Automakers have subsequently expanded recalls of the devices, which have been linked to six deaths and more than 100 injuries.
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Only selected parties, including government officials, have been informed by the company about the change to the propellant mix, one of the people said.
Kikko Takai, a spokeswoman for Takata, declined to comment when reached by telephone.
The air-bag maker agreed to almost double the number of cars called back in the U.S. as part of a consent order with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the regulator announced Tuesday, calling it the largest automotive recall in history. Takata agreed to make the recall nationwide — a step it had resisted — and submit its air-bag parts to the U.S. government for testing. The safety campaign covers 11 different automakers.
“We are pleased to have reached this agreement with NHTSA, which presents a clear path forward to advancing safety and restoring the trust of automakers and the driving public,” Takata Chief Executive Officer Shigehisa Takada said in a statement.
Carmakers are prioritizing humid areas such as the U.S. Gulf Coast and Okinawa in Japan because the weakness of the ammonium-nitrate propellant used by Takata is its sensitivity to moisture, said Scott Upham, president of Valient Market Research. Older vehicles and those in areas with high humidity will get the highest priority in Takata’s expanded U.S. recall, the company said in a statement Tuesday.
Still, humidity isn’t the only issue, said Upham, who has followed air bags since they first began going into cars a quarter-century ago.
“Many decision-makers at the automakers are still very concerned that ammonium nitrate — even with the fixes — is still not a stable compound,” Upham said.
Some vehicles made after 2008 have been recalled, and a different defect that can also cause ruptures prompted carmakers including General Motors and Nissan to call back newer vehicles last year.
Honda recalled the first batch of 4,205 vehicles related to the air-bag flaw in 2008, after finding the devices’ propellant took in excessive moisture at Takata’s plant in Mexico. The automaker, Takata’s biggest client, has since recalled more than 19 million cars.
Before Takata, the largest recall in U.S. history was in 1980 when Ford Motor had to fix 21 million cars and trucks with automatic transmissions that could slip into reverse. The Takata recall dwarfs last year’s highly publicized recall of 2.6 million General Motors small cars for defective ignition switches and Toyota’s recalls of 10 million vehicles for problems with unintended acceleration.
On Feb. 20, NHTSA began fining Takata $14,000 per day for failing to fully cooperate in the investigation. That fine accrued to more than $1.2 million before it was suspended Tuesday due to Takata’s cooperation, NHTSA officials said. Other civil penalties are still possible, they said.