The Continuing Case of Takata’s Exploding Airbags

Last week, four Japanese automakers – Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda – announced recalls of 3.4 million vehicles for “improperly pressurized” airbags made by Takata that could rupture, igniting fires or propelling metal fragments that could travel “upward toward the windshield or downward toward the front passenger's foot well.”

They forgot to mention that they could shoot straight out and hit you in the chest, as allegedly happened in 2009 to a Florida woman who owned a 2001 Honda Civic. And, they apparently forgot to mention that these airbags have been recalled over and over again since 2001.

In this latest campaign, Takata said that it only learned of the problem in 2011, after an alleged rupture of a passenger airbag inflator occurred in Puerto Rico. Certainly, it’s unlikely that 2011 was the first the supplier heard about this issue. There have been six recalls associated with Takata airbags that explode with too much force, spraying debris in their wake. This slow-moving rolling recall for manufacturing defects involving 13-year-old vehicles raises more questions than it answers. Why is Honda identifying a manufacturing process problem so long after these vehicles were produced?

The latest recall of 2000 to 2004 vehicles suggests an age degradation issue involving the propellant. Honda’s ever-changing explanations suggest that perhaps more than one manufacturing problem lies at the root of the inflator rupture problems.  A stroll through the recall documents also reveals Honda’s odd behavior – like recalling 830,000 vehicles to find 2,400 replacement modules. The depth of NHTSA’s involvement is also unknown. The agency began asking questions in 2009, without actually assigning the recall investigation an official Recall Query number. We suspect that the Recall Management Division has been keeping close company with Honda ever since.

Honda Inflator Ruptures Through the Years

2001: Recall 01V055

In February 2001, Isuzu reported in a Defect and Noncompliance Notice that it discovered three vehicles, a 2000 and 2001 Rodeo and an MY 2001 Honda Passport had passenger side front air bag inflator modules built with too much generant.

“In the event of a crash, the abnormal amount of generant could cause the airbag to burst. Occupants could be injured either as a result of debris or as a result of crash forces not counteracted by the air bag,” Isuzu said.

According to the defect report, the undisclosed supplier told the vehicle assembly plant that it had produced air bag units with incorrectly manufactured inflators in late January 2001. At the time, Isuzu said that it only knew of three defective vehicles outside its possession – identified by Isuzu 's undisclosed supplier using ”radiography images in the supplier's possession.”

So, it was a small, limited recall, since two of the vehicles were on the dealer’s lot, and only one – a Honda Passport – had been sold to a customer. 

Kia and the Breaking Brake Switch that’s Been Broken

Remember Lauri Ulvestad? She was the unfortunate owner of a 2011 KIA Sorrento, which took her on a wild 60-mile ride, at speeds topping out at 115 mph, around sedans and 18-wheelers along the north-bound corridor Interstate 35 in Harrison County, Missouri. The Missouri State Highway Patrol, which escorted Ulvestad until she was able to bring the vehicle to a stop, captured the event with an on-board camera.

At the time, the automaker said that it could not duplicate the event, and that it was “an isolated incident.” But, it bought Ulvestad’s Kia double-quick.

Well, today it turned out that the Ulvestad incident wasn’t so isolated after all. Kia and Hyundai announced that they were recalling 1.9 million vehicles from the 2006-2011 model years for a brake switch failure. The long list of vehicles includes: Hyundai Accent, Elantra, Genesis Coupe, Santa Fe, Sonata, Tucson and Veracruz vehicles and Kias Optima, Rondo, Sedona, Sorento, Soul and Sportage.

According to KIA’s Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Report:

"The stop lamp switch" (also known as a brake switch) "on vehicles in the subject recall population may experience intermittent switch point contact. This condition could potentially result in intermittent operation of the push-button start feature, intermittent ability to remove the vehicle's shifter from the Park position, illumination of the 'ESC' (Electronic Stability Control) indicator lamp in the instrument cluster, intermittent interference with operation of the cruise control feature, or intermittent operation of the stop lamps. Intermittent operation of the stop lamps increases the risk of a crash."

How does this description square with Lauri Ulvestad’s experience? Let’s see:

Betsy Spills Toyota’s Beans

To steal a line from Bogie: “Of all the publications in all the websites in all the world, she walks into Corporate Counsel.” She – being Betsy Benjaminson, a freelance translator from Israel who was tasked with translating from Japanese into English documents regarding Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Corporate Counsel -- being the self-described “leading digital destination for in-house counsel to find breaking news and practical information.” And this bit of breaking news? When you lie to the world about an automotive electronics problem that has the potential to result in fatal crashes, don’t expect every underling to keep your secrets.

The story, entitled Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration? (Spoiler alert: the answer is: No.) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a company in disarray with a technically challenging problem that its technicians weren’t looking too hard to solve, while its legal and public relations gears clicked into place to drive the denial machine forward. Our favorite:

“Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).

‘Tinto is extremely pessimistic,’ Hagiwara wrote, ‘and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can't completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.).’ Tinto's primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): ‘For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year's situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA.’ That failure, Tinto said, ‘may be a violation of the TREAD Act’—the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.”

Fixated on Floor Mats

Last month, NHTSA kicked a two-year-old investigation into unintended acceleration in Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan vehicles up to an Engineering Analysis. The suspected defect – floor mats that can entrap the accelerator pedal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Analysis:

“A heel blocker in the floor pan provides a platform that may lift an unsecured mat into contact with the pedal. Ford introduced new pedals as a running change early in model year (MY) 2010 vehicles. Analysis of complaints received by ODI and Ford show elevated rates of pedal entrapment incidents in MY 2008 through early 2010 production vehicles. Incidents typically occur following hard pedal applications to pass slower traffic or when merging into faster traffic. Drivers allege continued high engine power after releasing the accelerator pedal and difficulty braking, including reports that the incident was controlled by shifting to neutral or turning the engine off. Drivers and service technicians reference observing evidence of mat interference or note unsecured Ford or aftermarket all weather floor mats in post-incident inspections.”

This action was followed by a high-profile $17.4 million civil penalty that the agency levied against Toyota for failing to launch a timely recall for floor mat interference involving Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles. This was a NHTSA-influenced recall of mysterious origins since the Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire complaints didn’t seem to support a floor mat interference defect trend (see A Defect Remedy Delayed) – although the Lexus RX has certainly been plagued with all manner of sudden acceleration complaints.

These two events sent us digging through the recall and investigation archives to get a better handle on the greater context. There seems to have been an awful lot of floor mat-related brouhahas in the last few years. It seemed odd that floor mats – which exist solely to provide a barrier between muddy shoes and the carpeted floor pan – should suddenly be so troublesome. In the old days, rubber floor mats were rarely secured with retention clips, as they are now. In one of its responses to the 2010 Ford Fusion Preliminary Evaluation, the automaker reminded NHTSA:

A Defect Remedy Delayed?

Well, we guess that the Christmas bonuses at Toyota are going to be a wee bit smaller this year, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pocketed about 12 hours of profit from the automotive giant for failing to launch a timely recall for flying floor mats in the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Yesterday, Toyota agreed to settle the government’s claim that it failed to file a Part 573 report to the government within the mandatory five days after discovering a defect requiring a recall for $17.35 million. According to the settlement agreement, Toyota admitted to NHTSA that it knew of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX models since 2009.

That brings the Total Timeliness Simoleans (TTS) Toyota has paid to NHTSA in two years to more than $66 million. Now, Toyota may be setting all kinds of NHTSA civil penalty records, but when one considers that the company reportedly posted a $3.2 billion profit in just the third quarter, one realizes, that by any-pain-in-the-pocketbook standard, this fine ain’t nothing.

In a statement dripping with gravitas, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation's highways.”

This fine stems from a NHTSA-influenced floor mat interference recall last summer involving 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles. In May 2012, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires that indicated a floor mat entrapment problem for the 2010 RX. Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.” On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota. On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat, involving the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles.

Moving Tire Recalls into the 21st Century

Safety Research & Strategies has urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to add Tire Identification Numbers to a newly mandated web portal to identify recalls.

In September, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the possible changes to the provisions regarding Early Warning Reporting data. It also proposed requiring automobile manufacturers to submit Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) of specifically recalled vehicles, and maintain records of the recall remedy status of each specific vehicle. This was a requirement of the Motor Vehicle Safety Improvement Act, contained within the highway re-authorization bill known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, MAP-21, for short.

The recall statute mandates that NHTSA require that motor vehicle safety recall information be made available to the public on the Internet, and authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to require each manufacturer to do so. In the NPRM, NHTSA explained that it already had a website where consumers can look up recalls by vehicle make and model, or by the recall campaign number.  It proposed to simply add a VIN field to its current search capacity.

The authors of MAP- 21, however, forgot to require the same of tire manufacturers. SRS has submitted comments to this docket suggesting that the agency add a TIN-look-up, along with a VIN.

The omission is another sad chapter in the history of the Tire Identification Number (TIN) and tire safety. The Tire Identification Number has its origins in a Rubber Manufacturers’ Association strategy to seize the regulatory reins from the National Highway Safety Bureau, predecessor to NHTSA, as the tire identification standard was promulgated more than 40 years ago. It was established to help consumers identify tires in a recall. But, as is the case in many rulemakings, industry fought hard to mold the regulations to its own ends and convenience.

Why is Toyota Recalling the Land Cruiser?

The Toyota Unintended Acceleration floor mat recalls are now assuming the sprawling Del-Boca-Vista proportions of a seniors-only condo development in Sarasota. Last week, Toyota announced Phase 12 of its accelerator pedal modification and floor mat replacement recall. The newest vehicles to join the 14 million that have been recalled worldwide for unintended acceleration are 10,500 Toyota Land Cruisers in the 2008-2011 model years.

The remedy involves modifying the rigid plastic accelerator pedal, and equipping the vehicle with newly designed Toyota All Weather Floor Mats. 

 Now every time we hear about another Toyota floor mat recall, we kick ourselves for not buying rubber futures. But, this one has us wondering. Number one: there has been no public announcement of the recall. It is nowhere to be found on Toyota’s website.  Two: all of the documents in the public file for Recall 12V305 are not for the Land Cruiser, but for this summer’s recall of the Lexus RX350 and 450. Unintended Acceleration Recall Number 11, you may remember, was triggered by a NHTSA inquiry:

 “NHTSA approached Toyota regarding this issue late last month after the agency observed an increase in consumer complaints and other reports regarding pedal entrapment in these vehicles. When Toyota confirmed last week that it had received a significant volume of complaints on the same issue, NHTSA asked the manufacturer to conduct a recall.”

Ford Steering Problems Come into Focus

Headed to the top of the Early Warning Reporting charts with a bullet: 2012 Ford Focus steering failures. In the last four quarters, which includes the first half of 2012, there have been about 13 injury claims. Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corp., who regularly trawls this data, says that it is unusual to see so many steering-related claims in the 2012 model year, given the total for this very large fleet – one of the top-sellers for 2012 – so far.

The 2012 Ford Focus, is an all-new redesign, with – you guessed it: Electronic Power-Assisted Steering (EPAS). Electronic Power Steering (EPS) is one of our favorite automotive technology advancements plagued with failures when introduced – just ask Honda, GM and Toyota. All three have battled EPS malfunctions. The latter two prompted defect investigations which prompted one Technical Service Bulletin and one recall. The EPS issue is yet another example of automotive technology advancing without functional safety standards and beyond the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s ability to regulate or enforce.

A Ford video on the Focus EPAS purrs about how the sensors achieve steering “that feels just right” and “helps keep you firmly planted and in control.” (Watch

Perhaps Ford's EPAS keeps drivers planted a little too firmly – once the steering goes, it’s pretty hard to turn the wheel, according to owner reports. Consumer complaints show that the problem is a right-out-of-the-box phenomenon, with drivers generally reporting that within a few minutes of starting operation, power steering fails and Steering Assist Fault displays on the dash. (There’s another category of high-speed wander-type complaints, too.) Some had their first loss-of-steering-control incident within the first week of ownership, and many have had multiple occurrences. The failure usually occurs at low speed, and yet, there are situations in which losing steering is mighty dangerous, like when turning into traffic. About 20 owners of 2012 Focus vehicles have lodged complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations. One West Virginia owner reported: “While backing out of a driveway the steering system failed. I rolled down a hill and into a wooded area. The system gave an indicator light of steering system failure and also the braking system did not engage. I lost complete control of the vehicle.”

Toyota Power Window Fires and Excessive Lubrication: A Worldwide Epidemic

Question for the lads and lassies over at the Office of Defects Investigation: Are you going to penalize Toyota for waiting three years to recall a variety of models in the U.S. for power window switch fires, after it launched recalls for 770,540 substantially similar vehicles of the same model years in China, New Zealand and Japan in August and October of 2009?

The power window door fire issue got our attention February, when NHTSA opened Preliminary Evaluations into power window switch fires in the General Motors 2006-2007 Chevy Trailblazers and several 2007 Toyota models, including the Camry, the RAV4, the Highlander Hyrbrid and the Yaris. Consumers were reporting spontaneous burn incidents emanating from the power window switch area, starting –  but not always ending – with smoke and noxious odors. Few injuries; but many of the incidents happened while the vehicle was underway, and let’s face it, interior compartment fires are very distracting while driving.

It was NHTSA’s preliminary theory that perhaps the two automakers shared a common window switch supplier that would explain the defect trend.  And, both investigations proceeded together closely in parallel – like VPA1 and VPA2 circuits on the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor in some early model Toyota Camrys. (Sorry, we can’t resist a little Unintended Acceleration humor.)  In mid-June, ODI bumped both PEs up to Engineering Analyses, and it turned out that GM and Toyota did not share suppliers.

GM was the first to concede the need for a recall. On August 17, GM recalled 249,260 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL, 2006-07 Chevrolet Trailblazer; GMC Envoy; Buick Rainer; SAAB 9-7x; and lsuzu Ascender s in a slew of states because fluid could seep into the door module, causing corrosion and a short that could render the power window or door locks inoperable, and in some cases, ignite.

Changes to Recall Regs: A Ray of Sunshine!

When is a safety recall not really a safety recall?  When the manufacturer submitting the Part 573 Defect and Non-Compliance Report (49 CFR Part 573) says it isn’t.

The Recall Management Division’s files are dotted with many such non-admission admissions. For example, in February, Goodyear recalled nearly 41,000 of its Silent Armor Tires in six sizes. The company conceded that these tires had high rates of warranty and property damage claims, and that the tire’s lack of robustness could result in a partial tread separation and a crash. Three months earlier, two Texas college students died in a rollover crash, after the left rear Silent Armor tire on the pick-up truck suffered a tread separation.

Goodyear, however, “found no safety issues” and deemed its recall a “customer satisfaction campaign,” to NHTSA.

If NHTSA’s proposed changes to the recall regulations are eventually adopted, the practice of manufacturers making signing statements will end. The agency is also proposing to require automakers to file defect and non-compliance reports via the Internet, including notices of foreign recalls. The agency is proposing asking manufacturers to submit the specific Vehicle Identification Number for each recalled vehicle, so that consumers can search a recall by their vehicle’s specific VIN. Unfortunately, there appears to be no such provision for the Tire Identification Number (TIN). Manufacturers will continue to submit TIN ranges only, and there will be no Web portal, which the public can use to determine if a specific tire has been recalled.

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