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.