Takata Recall Tests the New and Improved NHTSA

Tomorrow October 22, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is scheduled to hold a public hearing ostensibly to explore coordinating a national recall of defective Takata airbag inflators. 

This auto safety crisis had been brewing internally at Takata since at least November 2001, when Honda received its first field report (noted as part of a recall for 2,900 Accord and Acura TL vehicles with passenger-side airbag inflators that had been improperly welded.) But the repeated Honda recalls for driver’s side airbag inflators that could explode with little to no provocation, spewing shrapnel at the vehicle occupants, did not really penetrate the public consciousness until 2013. By then, there were three known deaths and a spate of serious injuries associated with the defect, and the recalls widened to include other automakers and passenger-side inflators. Congress began to summon Takata and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials to the Hill for explanations.  

Today, 12 automakers have or are in the process of replacing defective Takata inflators in 19 million U.S. vehicles. Takata had resisted launching national recalls – insisting that it was only necessary to recall vehicles in states with hot and humid climates, even as explosions occurred in locations outside of the initial list. But, under the persuasive influence of a May Consent Order, Takata conceded that a safety defect existed and agreed to conduct national recalls.

This month’s hearing has been billed in the Federal Register as a notice of NHTSA’s resolve to publicize its intention of issuing administrative orders to coordinate the recall under its authority in several provisions of The Safety Act to ‘‘accelerate’’ remedy programs; to inspect and investigate; to ensure that defective vehicles and equipment are recalled and remedied; and to ensure that the remedy for the defect is adequate. The agency envisions its leadership in the recall effort as speeding up delivery of the repairs by prioritizing and organizing the air bag inflator remedy programs among multiple manufacturers; managing inflator sourcing, production, allocation, delivery, and installation; and ensuring adequacy of the remedy. 

Apparently, it’s already game on, because last month, the agency’s chief of Recall Management Division, Jennifer Timian, held a meeting in Ohio with representatives of BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Subaru, GM, Mitsubishi and Nissan – all participants in the Takata Recallapalooza. And, in a subsequent email to the attendees, Timian praised the group:

“We accomplished more than we thought possible in the few short days we had. However, and as many of you lamented, a large portion of the work to be done involves consistent and clear messaging to the public.  To that end, our communications office plans to shortly reach out to your communications folks to arrange a call for later this week to get that coordination kicked off.” The email recommended that automakers send their contact information to NHTSA’s Communication Director Gordon Trowbridge, because, Timian wrote, “We certainly don’t want to leave any critical players out.”

The Safety Record Blog felt a bit left out, and contacted Mr. Trowbridge for comment about the agency’s plans to coordinate communications. He did not respond.

Automakers are definitely upping their communications strategies. One 2002 Honda Accord owner who had inflator recall repairs done in 2011 and 2015 for the driver’s side airbag received several dire robo-calls from the “Honda Customer Service Team,” requesting an immediate response to “this urgent safety recall.” The one minute, 42-second voice message explained in straightforward language how the defect manifested itself. And, unlike the usual recall communications, in which the risk to safety is presented as a hypothetical – even if the defect had caused injuries and deaths – this message dropped all pretense:

“In some Honda vehicles the driver’s side airbag could produce excessive internal pressure upon deployment. If a defective airbag deploys, the increased pressure may cause the inflator to rupture. In the event of a rupture, metal fragments could pass through the airbag cushion material and possibly hit you and others in the vehicle. Past ruptures like this have killed or injured vehicle drivers. Due to the severity of this defect, please call us immediately. Do not delay.”

Meanwhile, the story of who knew what, when has grown like Topsy. And yet, despite intense media attention, there were still pieces of the story that have been hiding in the public record, such as foreign recalls for passenger side frontal airbags that preceded the U.S. recalls by about three years, and a published technical paper lending more credence to at least one root-cause theory that the volatility of phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate that Takata exclusively uses is a key factor in inflator explosions.  

Lies, Lies and Damned Lies

A closer look at the public record shows that automakers have had more truthiness issues with the extent of their knowledge of the problem than previously suspected. To wit, the Part 573 Notices of Defect and Non-Compliance filed in 2013 by Honda, Toyota, and Nissan in their passenger side air bag inflator recalls, which claimed to have discovered the defect in 2011 or later. Honda, for example, told NHTSA that it had no inkling that this could be a problem until October 2011, when a passenger airbag inflator ruptured in Puerto Rico. Ditto for Toyota, which told the agency, that it, too, discovered a passenger-side airbag rupture in October 2011, but in a crash in Japan. Nissan reported to NHTSA that it didn’t know anything about passenger-side airbag inflator ruptures until February 2013, when Takata informed the automaker that it was investigating a “quality issue” with front passenger airbag inflators.

We suspect, however, that the trio already had gotten a big hint there was a problem with exploding passenger side airbags, because all three had launched recalls in the summer of 2010 for passenger inflators in vehicles sold in other countries. Turns out Takata operators had not put enough propellant wafers into the inflators, allowing the other wafers to break apart. 

In August 2010, Honda recalled 57,660 Programmable Smokeless Passenger Inflators (PSPIs) in 82 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Middle East, Australia, Mexico and South America, including MY 2001-2003 Civics, MY 2002 Fit vehicles and MY 2001-2003 Stream vehicles because:  “In certain vehicles, the single-stage passenger airbag inflator could produce excessive internal pressure. If an affected airbag deploys, the increased internal pressure may cause the inflator housing to rupture. Metal fragments could pass through the airbag cushion material possibly causing injury or death to vehicle occupants.”

Honda conceded that the U.S. 2001-2003 Civics were similar to the recalled vehicles—except for the inflator modules, which were “dual-stage inflator modules,”  rather than the single-stage modules used in U.S. vehicles, and “we have received no more similar reports for dual stage passenger airbag modules.”

On June 30, 2010, Toyota recalled more than 38,000 MY 2001 Toyota Corolla, Corolla Fielder, Corolla Runx, and Yaris vehicles sold in Japan, France, Malaysia, and “other countries, for: inflators “produced with an insufficient amount of gas generators. In this condition, gas generators in the inflator may become broken and powdered by vehicle vibration over time. This can create abnormal combustion and pressure in the inflator body during airbag activation, causing it to break and scatter. This increases the risk of personal injury during airbag inflation.”

Toyota, long known for its chatty Part 573s, simply said that the foreign vehicles had “different” inflators than those in U.S. vehicles and offered no explanation of the discovery of the defect.

On July 1, 2010, Nissan recalled 4,043 passenger inflators in its 2001 MY Cefiro and Pulsar/Sunny vehicles sold in Japan, Singapore, Australia, and Sri Lanka. The automaker also recalled passenger inflators in 46 U.S. vehicles ( never to be mentioned again). Nissan described the defect as “some air bag inflators may be missing a wafer. As a result, the remaining wafers in the inflator used for the deployment of the front passenger air bag may be broken up into powder due to vibration experienced while driving. This causes the combustion rate of the propellant to increase inside the inflator, which can lead to internal pressure rising suddenly during air bag deployment. In certain cases, the inflator housing may rupture.”

Nissan’s chronology marks its discovery of bad passenger airbags to October 2009, when the automaker learned that a passenger airbag had “deployed abnormally” while being scrapped at a recycling center in Japan. Nissan collected inflators and conducted duplication testing and found that vibration of driving could pulverize the propellant wafers, causing them to burn unnaturally and produce excessive internal pressure. Naturally, Takata records showed that it only happened one time and everything was all fixed up: “During a certain discreet production period, due to a manufacturing error, it was possible that one of the propellant wafers was missing from the inflator. Production records indicated that this manufacturing issue was promptly corrected at the supplier's plant.” 

Given all that had preceded these “discoveries” – multiple recalls, secret testing at Takata, myriad quality control issues at its plants – we think these explanations are one wafer short of an inflator. 

Transient Burning

“Transient Burning Behavior of Phase-Stabilized Ammonium Nitrate Based Airbag Propellant.” That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Shorter version: Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have been studying the combustion behavior of Takata inflators and how rapidly the propellant burns when there are rapid pressure changes. The technical paper authored by Jonathan T. Essel, Eric Boyer, Kenneth K. Kuo, and Baoqi Zhang of Penn State’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering was published in the latter part of 2012. 

For those of you who are not regular subscribers of the International Journal of Energetic Materials and Chemical Propulsion (Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Kuo), this paper describes an investigation into the dynamic burning behavior of an airbag propellant as a function of pressure and pressurization rate. The burn rate of airbag propellants can increase significantly under intense pressure; that’s why they are supposed to be designed to maintain a steady burn rate during the transient combustion process. This paper said:  “It is clear from the results that the PSAN propellant does exhibit dynamic burning behavior. It is also apparent that the higher the pressurization rates, the more severe the dynamic burning effect.” It also said: “The effect of dynamic burning behavior of the propellant needs to be accounted for, when designing or analyzing systems that subject the PSAN propellant to high pressurization rates.” 

This sounds like chemistry-speak for NHTSA’s explanation of the inflator defect:

“Over time, that moisture causes changes in the structure of the chemical propellant that ignites when an air bag deploys. The degraded propellant ignites too quickly, producing excess pressure that causes the inflator to rupture and sends metal shards into the passenger cabin that can lead to serious injury or death.” 

According to a story in today’s New York Times, this investigation was not mere scholarly interest – Takata, which is a sponsor of Penn State’s High Pressure Combustion Lab, paid for this study and forbade the researchers from mentioning Takata or Honda in its published paper. It disliked the results so much that it waited for two years before sharing this information with NHTSA.

Of course, despite the absence of the words “Takata,” and “Honda,” one could infer that the researchers were testing Takata inflators – perhaps at the behest of Takata itself – from several in-the-public-record facts:

  • Of the three global manufacturers of airbag inflators, Takata is the only one to use phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate (PSAN) based propellant.
  • Co-author Eric Boyer is also assistant director of Penn State’s High Pressure Combustion Lab.
  • Takata is a sponsor of Penn State’s High Pressure Combustion Lab.
  • Before a June U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing updating Congress on the Takata recalls, Kevin Kennedy, Executive Vice President of Takata North America Testifified: “Well, the studies that we have done, and the research that we have from some of the leading experts in the world, seem to indicate that ammonium nitrate is certainly a factor in the inflator ruptures.”

Attorney Ted Leopold, who represents a Duval County, Florida, woman severely injured by a Honda airbag with a Takata inflator, believes that ammonium nitrate is also a factor in over-aggressive deployments. In June 2014, Patricia Mincey, owner of a 2001 Honda Civic, was belted in a moderate frontal crash, when, she alleges, the Honda/Takata airbag “deployed late and violently exploded due to excessive pressurization,” rendering her a quadriplegic. Honda had replaced her inflator in the 2009 recall. Four days after the crash, Honda recalled her vehicle again to replace the defective airbag.

Leopold, of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is scheduled to depose Kuo on November 3 about the significance of the Penn State team’s findings.

“The published PSU study confirms that Takata’s use of phase stabilized ammonium nitrate in its inflators results in an over-pressurization that leads to inflator ruptures and aggressive deployments. This often overlooked defect – aggressive deployments – can lead to severe injuries,” he says. 

In 2011 and 2012, while Takata was characterizing the defect as a discrete manufacturing problem, researchers at Penn State were examining the role of the propellant chemistry in inflator explosions and had come to the conclusion that its propellant ignites too quickly. But Takata – three years after this research is published – apparently still isn’t sure. Even as Kevin Kennedy acknowledged that ammonium nitrate is a factor in inflator ruptures, he insisted that its propellant chemistry is safe.

At that same June hearing, Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts asked Kevin Kennedy: Can you guarantee that as long ammonium nitrate is used in those products, that the products are safe?

Kevin Kennedy answered: “Well, we believe properly manufactured and designed ammonium nitrate, phase stabilized ammonium nitrate, can be done properly.”

Well, maybe it can, but apparently, Takata didn’t.

Takata Airbag Defect Explodes into Crisis

This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a Consumer Advisory urging “owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags.” The announcement was accompanied by an agency web page with an incomplete list of vehicles under recall, as well as mistakenly naming 14 GM models equipped with Autoliv airbags that were once recalled in 2002. The recalls, investigations and complaints look-up functions on its website were inoperable. Toyota announced that it would disable defective airbags in some affected vehicles until replacement parts were available and Acting Administrator David Friedman told The New York Times concurred, under the logic that a vehicle with no airbag was better than one that might spray the occupants with shrapnel upon deployment. 

At this point, 7.8 million vehicles in the U.S. are under recall. The inflator defect has been tied to reportedly 139 injuries and three – possibly four – deaths.  Congress has come calling. Three U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Florida’s Bill Nelson and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey have sent stern letters to NHTSA decrying the latest regional recalls. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is threatening to hold a hearing.
Once again, the agency is in crisis mode, and despite NHTSA’s description of the inflator defect recalls as “going as far back as 18 months ago,” the recall history stretches back eight years, when Honda issued its first recall for Takata “airbag inflators that could produce excessive internal pressure.” And the defect history goes back 14 years to April 2000, when according to Recall Notice 13V136,  some air bag propellant wafers manufactured between then and September 11, 2002 at Takata's Moses Lake, Washington plant may have been produced with inadequate compaction force.
Since then, there have been five more rounds of recalls in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. And in the last two years, the Takata airbag defect has spread to nine other manufacturers. The defect is not an artifact of some long ago manufacturing process – the most recently recalled vehicles were 2013 Chevrolet Cruze vehicles (which GM and Takata claim is unrelated). And, it’s likely that even at these numbers, not all of the affected vehicles have been recalled, nor is it merely the result of exposure to heat and humidity. One of the most recent complaints to NHTSA involved a 2010 Honda Civic from Reisterstown, Maryland. According to the VOQ: 
While driving at low speeds, the driver side air bag and ceiling air bag deployed unexpectedly. The contact suffered an injury to the face and the driver seat was fractured in half by a metal fragment. The vehicle was not diagnosed or repaired. The manufacturer stated that the vehicle was not included in NHTSA campaign number…
Ultimately, the problem appears to be rooted in Takata’s continuing quality control problems at its manufacturing facilities. The crisis, however, is rooted in manufacturers’ lax attitudes toward locating consumers when it’s recall time, and NHTSA’s lack of process and recall management. This week, Friedman was apologizing for all of the website malfunctions and misinformation, but he declared that NHTSA “had identified the problem.”
A look back at the earliest Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance reports shows that Honda supplied almost no information about the defect, what little it did supply turned out to be incorrect. The automaker neglected to mention that at least some of those “unusual deployments” resulted in injuries. For its part, NHTSA, until very recently, has displayed little curiosity as Honda and Takata offered shifting explanations for the rolling recalls. Perhaps the apologies should have started earlier.    
NHTSA’s division of recall management has been breathing a little fire lately at manufacturers who submit Part 573s that don’t acknowledge that a recall is a recall and a defect is a defect. And, recently The Safety Record was shocked – and pleased – to read an eight-page chronology submitted with a GM Defect and Noncompliance Notice. But, for far too many years, the Division of Recall Management displayed a distinct “whatevs” attitude toward the documentation of defects and a manufacturer’s willingness to actually concede that filing a Defect and Noncompliance Notice meant, on its face, that there was a defect. And the agency is still far from showing competence when it comes to trolling quarterly reports for terrible repair rates and forcing manufacturers to put a little sweat into reaching out to vehicle owners. 
“It’s well-known that automakers do a lousy job notifying customers – especially on cars out of warranty often relying on outdated owner information,” says SRS President Sean Kane.  “It took an act of Congress to force NHTSA to have a VIN recall lookup tool which was only released months ago and the agency posted the wrong vehicles affected by the Takata recalls in its consumer advisory.  Once again consumers are bearing the brunt of these failures.”
The Timeline
The Safety Record has been examining the public record on this defect since April 2013, and the information has been scant, misleading, and doled out sparingly. The bottom line: the production problems go back to 2000; Honda got its first complaint of a rupture that caused an injury in 2004, but did not report that in 2008, when it launched its first recall. If either is to be believed, Honda/Takata have been collecting and studying fractured airbag inflators for seven years. The pair, along with the more recent automakers dragged into the recalls, have supplied no fewer than eight different root cause explanations for the defect:
  • Propellant wafers with inadequate compaction force;
  • Propellant wafers exposed to elevated moisture during the manufacturing process, which, when coupled with thermal cycling in vehicles over time cause the propellant density to decline;
  • The process of processing the propellant into a wafer on a specific Stokes high-compression machines;
  • The handling of the propellant during manufacturing; 
  • Propellant wafers with lower material density; 
  • Prolonged exposure to heat and humidity over the lifecycle of the vehicle;
  • Airbag inflator manufactured with “an incorrect part.”
The reasons for the ever expanding recall population are similarly confused. The information coming from the supplier and automakers has hopscotched from one instance of bad record-keeping to another. Among the explanations:
  • Confusion over one manufacturing processes that did not automatically verify all propellant as being within specification;
  • An unreliable method of sampling production meant that Takata could not absolutely assure that the inflators in the recall population met all production criteria;
  • Some number of potentially affected replacement service part driver's airbag modules had been sold through Honda dealers, but could not be accounted for using the controlled parts system;
  • Honda/Takata’ discovery that propellant produced during 2001 -2002 could have been manufactured out of specification without the manufacturing processes correctly identifying and removing it.
It is increasingly difficult to believe that Takata knows exactly which vehicles received a bad inflator manufactured within a specific time period on a specific machine, and that the root cause has been definitively identified.
Here’s a much condensed timeline:
2000 – Some air bag propellant wafers manufactured between this date and September 11, 2002 at Takata's Moses Lake, Washington plant may have been produced with inadequate compaction force.
2001 – Some propellant wafers used in air bag inflators manufactured between October 4  and October 31, 2002 at Takata's Monclova, Mexico plant may have been exposed to uncontrolled moisture.
2004 – In May Honda receives first complaint related to airbag inflator ruptures and shares information with Takata, but doesn’t report it to NHTSA until September 2009 in response to a Recall Query.
2006 – Mexican news reports that Takata’s air bag plant in Monclova Mexico was rocked by violent explosions in containers loaded with propellant, leaving at least a dozen workers injured.
2007 – Honda receives two more complaints and a lawsuit related to airbag inflator ruptures. Honda of America Manufacturing (HAM) initiates an investigation. Later claims to NHTSA that this is the first such report. 
2008 – Honda starts to collect parts from suspect propellant lots and analyzes them. The “unusual airbag deployment” complaint total rises to five. In October, Takata Holdings makes a presentation to Honda about inflator issue. In November, Honda completes the investigation and launches Recall 08V259. Honda of America Manufacturing continues its investigation for returned inflators of the recall. 
2009 – Honda receives more complaints about ruptured airbags. One is the death of Ashley Nicole Parham of Oklahoma on May 27 in a 2001 Honda Accord.  Another death occurs on Dec. 24. Eve-Guddi Ratore allegedly dies in a minor crash in which the airbag deployed and the inflator ruptured in her 2001 Honda Accord. (This death does not appear in any of Honda’s recall submissions to NHTSA) By June, Honda decides that recall 08V-593 should be expanded, but does not explain why. In July, after the ninth complaint, Honda launches Recall 09V259, which expands the range of 2001 Honda Civic and Accord vehicles. In November, NHTSA’s Recall Management Division finally takes notice and sends Honda an information request to determine why vehicles in the 2009 recall weren’t included in 2008. Honda and Takata identified the process of pressing the propellant into a wafer on specific high-compression machines as the cause of the ruptures.
2010 – More Honda investigations and another recall. Recall 10V041 includes other vehicles because Honda is not able to rely on the method of sampling production in use at that time to absolutely assure that the inflators in the recall population meet all production criteria. In April, Kristy Williams is severely injured by ruptured airbag in a 2001 Honda Civic. Six months after opening the Recall Query, NHTSA accepts Takata and Honda’s explanations and closes RQ09-004. NHTSA Recall Management Division finds that there is insufficient evidence to determine if Honda and Takata failed to meet their recall timeliness obligations.
2011 – In March, Honda discovers that it can’t account for all of the bad inflators that got into dealers’ replacement parts inventory, and decides to notify owners of all 833, 255vehicles in which the 2,430 affected driver's airbag modules could have been installed and launches. More complaints, More internal investigations.  Toyota receives field report of a rupture from a vehicle from the Japan market and asks Takata to investigate. Honda reports alleged rupture of a passenger airbag inflator occurred in Puerto Rico, and decides to  expand the VIN range of suspect driver's airbag inflator modules for Recall 11V260 to include those that could have been assembled with mixed propellant lot production.
2012 – More Honda/Takata investigations; more field reports from Toyota
2013 – NHTSA and Honda meet to discuss the ongoing investigation. Takata informs Toyota that some of the propellant wafers found within the additionally recovered inflators were cracked, possibly due to lower material density. Takata informs Nissan, Mazda and BMW that it was investigating a front passenger air bag inflator quality issue affecting air bags. Separately, Takata tells Honda “of another potential concern related to airbag inflator production that could affect the performance of these airbag modules.”  In April, Honda completes the investigation and launches Recall 13V132.  The automaker also learns of a 13th incident – without injury. In the spring and summer, Mazda, Toyota, BMW and Nissan issue recalls as well.
2014 – In June, the Office of Defects Investigation opens a Preliminary Evaluation into airbag inflator ruptures affecting 1.09 million Takata components, based on six complaints of improper deployment or rupture that occurred in high heat and humidity climates of Florida and Puerto Rico. BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Mazda, Nissan and Honda agree to conduct field action. In June, GM adds the more than 29,000 2013-2104 Chevrolet Cruze vehicles to the list of airbag inflator recalls for being manufactured with an unidentified “incorrect part.”
What’s Next?
Takata’s responses to NHTSA’s 2009 Recall Query make for some interesting reading in 2014.
Takata told NHTSA back then that it had “not provided any air bag inflators that are the same or substantially similar to the inflators in vehicles covered by Recalls 08V-593 and 09V-259 to any customers other than Honda. The physical characteristics of the inflator housing used in the Honda vehicles subject to these recalls are unique to Honda.” 
This does not seem to be the case.
Takata also claimed a “policy of continuous review and continuous improvement of its production methods to improve quality and to increase efficiency.”  
This does not seem to have produced the results Takata hoped for.
Takata has used the propellant chemistry in the recalled Honda inflators in more than 100,000,000 air bag inflators sold to most major vehicle manufacturers over the past 10 years. 
This suggests that more recalls are in the offing.
Congress has been gathering the torches and pitchforks. An October 21 letter from Florida Senator William Nelson takes NHTSA to task for urging consumers to act “immediately,” without providing “actual information they can use to accomplish that task.”  He also pointed out that there are plenty of snowbirds with vehicles registered in cold weather states that spend substantial time in hot and humid climates. Yesterday, Sens. Markey and Blumenthal urged NHTSA to issue immediately a nationwide recall on all affected cars, regardless of where the vehicle is registered. All three called on manufacturers to provide rental cars at no cost to consumers if vehicles cannot be fixed immediately due to lack of replacement parts. 
So here we are, again, with the national press fighting for scoops and Congress clamoring for action, all borne on a rising tide of injuries, deaths and recalls. When will someone seriously address NHTSA’s staffing levels, defect surveillance and recall management processes and procedures? NHTSA, a self-proclaimed public health agency could use a seasoned epidemiologist who can lead and instill the types of practices and policies that provide real consumer protection. The GM ignition debacle isn’t even concluded, and the agency is already swamped in another fiasco.

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

2008: Recall 08V593

In November 2008, Honda began to recall certain 2001 Accord and Civic vehicles to replace airbags that “could produce excessive internal pressure,” causing “the inflator to rupture,” spraying metal fragments through the airbag cushion. Honda said that it learned of the problem via a June 2007 claim. In September 2008, another metal-laced deployment occurred. The limited campaign affected fewer than 4,000 vehicles.

2009: Recall 09V259

On June 30, 2009, Honda decided to expand the recall to 440,000 MY 2001 and 2002 Civic, Accord and Acura vehicles, after receiving two more claims of “unusual deployments” on May 28 and June 9.

At this point, Honda got NHTSA’s attention. In August 2009, the Recall Management Division sent Honda an information request to explain why Honda didn’t include these vehicles in the 2008 recall, and “to evaluate the timeliness of HMC’s recent defect decision.” The Recall Management Division asked for complaints, lawsuits, warranty claims and field reports, along with a lot more explanation about the “unusual deployments” and Honda investigative efforts.

In Honda’s September reply, the automaker said that its information came from Takata:

“We understood the causal factors to be related to airbag propellant due to handling of the propellant during airbag inflator module assembly.” Later, Honda and Takata pinpointed the problem to “production of the airbag propellant prior to assembly of the inflators.” Specifically, the cause was “related to the process of pressing the propellant into wafers that were later installed into the inflator modules,” and limited to “one production process” involving one high-precision compression press that was used to form the propellant into wafers, the automaker told NHTSA.

(Honda included an October 2, 2008 presentation Takata made to Honda about the causes – the substance of which was granted confidentiality.)

The automaker said that it had fielded nine complaints and one lawsuit, with the first incident reported to Honda in May of 2004. It is difficult to determine if these represented complaints apart from those mentioned in Honda’s Defect and Noncompliance reports for the 2008 and 2009 recalls, because the dates of these complaints don’t line up.

(NHTSA has fielded at least four complaints from Honda customers reporting airbag deployments that shot metal shards into an occupant. But the first such claim came in 2005. According to ODI complaint number 10152674, a driver in Wheaton, Ill. reported that during a head-on collision, “the airbag exploded and discharged metal fragments causing injury to the driver.”)

Honda said that the common thread in these complaints was over-pressurization that created “some form of separation of the metal airbag inflator shelf, resulting in metal fragments of the shell being propelled through the airbag fabric. In most cases the metal fragments were relatively small, though in one instance it appears that the second stage of the two-stage inflator became separated from the inflator module and was propelled toward the driver.”

Since NHTSA didn’t open an official Recall Query, it’s difficult to say if Honda’s submissions were sufficient to close the matter for the agency.

2010: Recall 10V041

About three months after its 2009 recall, Honda announced a third recall for 379,000 vehicles – more 2001 and 2002 Accords and Civics, and certain 2002 MY Honda CR-V, 2002 Honda Odyssey, 2003 Honda Pilot, 2002-2003 Acura 3.2TL and 2003 Acura 3.2CL vehicles. This time, Honda said that there were two different manufacturing processes used to prepare the propellant – one was verified as being within specifications, but the other was not. Honda decided to recall all of those using the second process – even though the automaker claimed that testing of some inflators from this batch found that they performed properly.

2011: Recall 11V260

In April 2011, Honda filed yet another Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance report for 2,430 replacement service part airbag modules that might have been installed in vehicles covered by previous recall expansions. Despite an analysis to determine where those 2,430 replacement modules went, Honda said they couldn’t find them – so the automaker was going to contact all owners of previously recalled models – all 833,277 of them – to capture the errant replacement modules.

The problem continued to surface. In addition to the Puerto Rico incident in 2011, in October 2012, the owner of a 2002 Civic from McKinney, Texas reported to NHTSA:


I was proceeding to make a left turn after stopping and looking at an all-way stop. A Ford truck coming the opposite direction ran the stop and crashed into my car in the right-front. The airbags deployed and I was stunned by the impact. My left ear and face were severely lacerated by fragments of the airbag inflator (which were found and photo-documented), resulting in 29 stitches and permanent scarring. Shortly after the accident, Honda sent me a recall notice regarding the airbag inflator: this was the first time I was made aware of the fact that the airbag inflator was known to produce shrapnel and had caused fatalities. Despite having owned the car since 2003 and having it serviced at dealerships several times over the years, I had not received any prior information regarding the lethal airbag defect. Honda has been irresponsible and apathetic regarding my situation and the problem in general. I could have easily been injured worse or killed by the fragments, yet the company seems to not take the problem seriously. I will absolutely never own another Honda, will forbid my family and loved ones from owning a Honda.


2013: Recall 13V132

And that brings us up to this month, when the exploding airbag recall exploded into the millions. According to Honda’s most recent Defect and Noncompliance report, the airbag that exploded in Puerto Rico in October 2011 prompted Honda to ask NHTSA if it could collect “healthy” airbag modules to see if “abnormal combustion was possible,” and guess what? It was! But Honda claims it still didn’t know why.

On February 8, NHTSA and Honda met to discuss the “ongoing investigation.” Honda said that “A recreation of propellant production using the same methods as were used during 2001-2002 production periods indicated that it was possible for propellant produced during 2001-2002 to be manufactured out of specification without the manufacturing processes correctly identifying and removing the out of specification propellant. Separately, Honda was informed by the supplier of another potential concern related to airbag inflator production that could affect the performance of these airbag modules.”

Well that clears it all up, then.

So, why are these Takata airbags spewing metal? Let’s review the explanations:

·        In 2008, it was excessive internal pressure caused by the handling of the propellant during airbag inflator module assembly. Then it was a manufacturing process that occurred before assembling the inflators — the process of pressing the propellant into wafers, traced to one particular compression machine.

·         In 2010, Honda/Takata revealed that there were actually two different manufacturing processes used to prepare the propellant – one was verified as being within spec, but the other wasn’t.

·         In 2013, Honda/Takata discovered that the propellant produced in 2001-2002 could be out of spec without the plant knowing it, and “another potential concern” – as yet unidentified.

Confused yet? Exactly how were these propellants out of spec? Was Takata skimping on the chemical binders that hold the material together? Is this an age degradation issue – exacerbated by heat? Time? Moisture? Publicly known complaints emanate from warm climate states like Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. If this is a manufacturing process issue, why did it take Takata six years to suss it out? Why are some newly manufactured airbags exploding and spraying shrapnel? Same reasons?

One thing is for sure: these recalls don’t inspire much confidence that the problem has been solved. 

When Occupant Detection Sensors Don’t Make Sense?

On December 17, 2011, Hyundai settled, for an undisclosed sum, in a crash that wouldn’t and shouldn’t have caused a fatality but for a defective occupant seat sensor – a problem that may be more common – across many manufacturers – and more potentially deadly than realized.

On January 3, 2010, Donna Lynn Hopkins was a front-seat passenger in a 2008 Hyundai Accent, with her husband, Tom, at the wheel. As they approached an intersection on Highway 181 in Bexar County, Texas, another driver failed to yield the right of way. The Hyundai T-boned the other vehicle with sufficient force to deploy the airbags. But only the driver’s airbag inflated. The occupant seat sensor mat in the front passenger seat determined that, Donna Hopkins, a 165-pound woman, was actually a child, and turned off the airbag. Worse, Hyundai’s sensor strategy also turned off the seat belt pretensioner. Like some other manufacturers, Hyundai’s occupant sensor is designed so that the front passenger seat belt pretensioner fires only if the airbag is deployed. Mrs. Hopkins had none of the advanced safety features needed to adequately protect her in that crash, even though she was belted, and weighed 55 pounds more than the regulated cut-off for smart airbag deployment. Her husband, Tom, walked away from the crash; Donna Hopkins died.

Attorney Stephen Van Gaasbeck, who represented the Hopkins family, says that his research revealed many airbag non-deployment complaints for the Accent and its model twins. In fact, in May 2008, then-Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) wrote to NHTSA on behalf of a constituent who complained about his 2006 Kia Rio. Kia is a Hyundai owned company. In his letter to Dole, the Mint Hill, NC owner wrote: Continue reading

SRS Requests GM Brand Cars and asks NHTSA to Change NCAP Designations for Vehicles with Deleted “Standard” Side Airbags

Safety Research & Strategies continuing investigation into the “fleet delete” option that allowed GM fleet buyers to purchase vehicles without “standard” side curtain airbags reveals that bagless cars are still being sold to the public as having the feature. (SRS Investigation)

On September 2, 2009,  SRS requested GM president and CEO Frederick Henderson change its advertising and marketing materials to reflect that the feature is not standard and alert all dealers and car buyer’s guide organizations of this anomaly on the 2006 through 2008 Impala, 2008 through 2009 Cobalt and any other vehicles that GM has marketed with “standard” side curtain airbags that were offered to fleet buyers without the feature.

SRS also asked NHTSA Acting Administrator Ron Medford to have the agency amend its side-impact crash-test rating information to reflect new information that has come to light regarding deleted “standard” side curtain airbags.

Below are links to the letters:

Letter to GM President and CEO, Frederick Henderson

Letter to NHTSA Acting Deputy Administrator Ron Medford