Takata doubles air bag recall and becomes largest in auto history

Takata doubles air bag recall and becomes largest in auto history

After a record-setting year for automobile recalls, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind disclosed he believed the year of the recall would actually be 2015, given the public awareness and increased number of complaints received by the NHTSA.

Less than six months later and Rosekind is proven correct.

Last year, Takata began testing and consequently suggesting a recall due to faulty air bags that can launch shrapnel into a vehicle upon impact. It began as the manufacturers choice – 11 different automakers were affected, announcing recalls that included approximately 18 million vehicles. Yesterday during a joint announcement with the NHTSA, Takata revealed they were expanding the recall to 33.8 million vehicles.

Comparing Takata to GM

The situation is similar to General Motors’ defective detent plunger. Last year, GM made daily headlines for the faulty ignition switches found in 2.6 million vehicles. The automaker continued to add additional vehicle recalls, brining the year-end amount to almost 30 million. For more than a decade, the faulty detent plunger that allowed the key to slip out of place in the ignition remained unfixed, resulting in more than 100 deaths.

About 15 years ago, complaints were filed with the NHTSA about the rupturing air bags, but Takata denied any defect. Former Takata engineers with the company believed the ammonium nitrate propellant to be unstable, but management ignored their protests. Tests were completed in 2004 that showed signs of the defect, but nothing was reported to the regulators.

In 2008, Honda announced two recalls amounting to little more than 500,000 vehicles due to the Takata air bag defect, but the Japanese parts supplier remained firm in their stance.

Last June, the NHTSA reopened the investigation due to the massive number of vehicles affected by recalls and the concerned public. Believing the Takata air bags to be dangerous, automakers were given the choice about where and how many to recall. For example, it’s believed high levels of humidity can cause the ammonium nitrate propellant to alter states, making it volatile and more dangerous upon air bag deployment.

Gradually, the companies expanded their recalls after evidence of injuries and deaths were found in non-humid areas, reaching almost 18 million in the United States.

The NHTSA fined Takata daily since the end of February for failure to comply, until yesterday when the company finally admitted fault and expanded the recall to include all affected vehicles – effectively doubling the current amount to almost 34 million, more than GM’s year-end totals. In fact, the most comparable consumer recall is the Tylenol crisis in 1982 where 31 million bottles of the medicine were pulled from shelves.

What is the defect?

Takata’s use of ammonium nitrate is questioned by many industry professionals due to its volatile nature. Because it cycles through five solid states, ammonium nitrate is extremely difficult to stabilize. As a hydroscopic compound, it will collect water from the environment, aiding in the composition change. This is why initial recalls focused on high-humidity areas, including Florida, South Carolina and Hawaii.

Additional uses include fertilizer and explosives, being the main component of ANFO or ammonium nitrate fuel oil. Despite the risks, Takata continues to be the only parts supplier to use it as a propellant. Nine years ago, several explosions occurred in its Mexico plant due to quality control issues with ammonium nitrate.

Air bag propellant is placed in a capsule that is heated by the igniter upon impact. This causes the air bag to fill with gas in excess of 200 mph. The faulty Takata air bag propellant may cause a more violent combustion given the cycling states and cause hot metal and plastic pieces to shoot through the air bag fabric, leading to injury and even death.

Are you affected?

One in every seven vehicles in the United States is affected by the Takata air bag recall. If your car is included, you should receive information in the mail from your car’s company regarding repairs. At the moment, the Takata recall government page isn’t updated with the most recent addition of 17 million vehicles, but automakers are working to submit the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) affected as quickly as possible for owners to check for their vehicle. Another option is to call your dealer directly. If your car is under recall, the air bags will be replaced at no cost when parts are available.

If you believe you have a legal claim or concern regarding the Takata air bag recall, please contact us immediately.

Sources
  • Associated Press, “Here’s what you need to know about Takata air bag recall,” NBC News (May 20, 2015). [Link]
  • Fox News, “Faulty Takata air bags trigger largest auto recall in US history,” (May 19, 2015). [Link]
  • Enjoli Francis & David Kerley, “US listing of cars affected by Takata air bag recall not updated yet,” ABC  News (May 20, 2015). [Link]
  • Danielle Ivory & Hiroko Tabuchi, “Airbag recall widens to 34 million cars as Takata admits defects,” The New York Times (May 19, 2015). [Link]
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