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.