May 21, 2015
Today, the Department of Transportation announced that it will organize the multi-manufacturer recall of 34 million airbag inflators announced by supplier Takata earlier this week. Just three days earlier, the agency took a victory lap, after finally forcing Takata to launch national – not regional – recalls and to work more closely – under the terms of a consent order and the threat of civil fines – with NHTSA to ferret out the root causes.
The story has played out as a win for the agency and another coat of polish on its newly acquired iron fist. And we find little to argue with there. However, at the consumer level, it may not mean much in the short term.
We haven’t seen an episode of High Noon that pitted federal sheriffs against a black-hatted OEM supplier since 2001, when NHTSA issued an Initial Decision – a painful and public prelude to NHTSA compelling an entity to conduct a recall – in the case of Firestone Wilderness tires on Ford Explorers. On October 4 of that year, more than a year after Firestone initiated its first recall for ATX and some Wilderness tires, the agency determined that that Wilderness tires in sizes P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 on SUVs were defective. Less than two weeks later, Firestone officially threw in the towel, and announced a recall rather than contesting the decision.
Under federal regulations, even suppliers have an obligation to file Part 573 defect notices with all of the same working parts as vehicle manufacturers – including detailed chronologies of the defect’s discovery, affected vehicles, and a no-charge remedy plan. To quote the CFR: “In the case of a defect or noncompliance decided to exist in original equipment installed in the vehicles of more than one manufacturer, compliance with §573.6 is required of the equipment manufacturer as to the equipment item, and of each vehicle manufacturer as to the vehicles in which the equipment has been installed.”
Typically, it is the vehicle manufacturer that assumes these obligations. And, back in 2009, when the snowball started rolling downhill, Honda filed the Part 573s, with very sketchy chronologies, and conducted the recalls with varying degrees of success. But as the explanations for exploding inflators kept shifting and problem gathered mass in 2013, with 10 manufacturers launching recalls, Congressional hearings, new deaths and injuries, along with a steady stream of acid press, the pressure had been building on Takata to officially acknowledge the defect and provide more transparency about the causes. Takata filed recall notices in 2013 and 2014. In December, the agency threatened civil fines if Takata did not launch a nationwide recall for inflators that might explode from over-pressurization. Takata basically told NHTSA to stick it – the agency had no evidence to support its demand, and, by the way, you have no power here!
That was it for NHTSA. The safety-free, deal cuttin’ days of former DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and his sidekick NHTSA Administrator David Strickland (ever brothers, now as lobbyists) were over. You may recall the NHTSA-Chrysler showdown of June 2013, over older Jeeps with behind-the-axle, rear-mounted fuel tanks which burst into flames when struck from the rear – especially at higher speeds. NHTSA formally requested that Chrysler conduct a recall, but the automaker had no interest. To avoid a legal brawl, LaHood, Strickland and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne came up with a cosmetic solution – a retro-fitted tow-hitch, which one year later the automaker hadn’t installed on one vehicle. In the meantime, the roadside incinerations continue and in April a Georgia jury awarded $150 million to the family of a 2012 death of four-year-old boy, who died in his booster seat after the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind and burst into flames. The airport conference-room recall that the trio cooked up with is still leaving a stench.
Takata has filed four separate Part 573s and here’s what they have told us:
First, after six years of offering revolving root-cause explanations – when anyone bothered at all – Takata concedes that this is a multi-root cause problem involving moisture intrusion caused by leaking seals, the design of the inflator, the airbag, the vehicle, the shape of the propellant, and manufacturing “variability”:
It appears that the inflator ruptures have a multi-factor root cause that includes the slow-acting effects of a persistent and long term exposure to climates with high temperatures and high absolute humidity. Exposure over a period of several years to persistent levels of high absolute humidity outside the inflator, combined with the effects of thermal cycling, may lead to moisture intrusion in some inflators by means of diffusion or permeation. Fraunhofer ICT has identified the possibility in these climates for moisture intrusion into the inflator over time and a process by which the moisture may slowly increase the porosity of the propellant within the inflator. Fraunhofer ICT's analysis also indicates that the design of the inflator and the grain (shape) of the propellant can affect the likelihood that the porosity change will occur, as can manufacturing variability. The results of the Fraunhofer ICT research to date are consistent with the geographic location and age of the inflators that have ruptured in the field and in Takata's testing. Takata's testing also indicates that the design of the vehicle and the design of the air bag module are associated with differences in outcomes.
Takata is also aware of a potential issue associated with the inflator body internal tape seals on some SPI inflators. During its investigation, Takata observed a small number of tape seal leaks in SPI inflators manufactured prior to 2007. These leaks were discovered during leak testing in 2014, as part of the Takata returned-inflator evaluation program.
Second, we got an official count of field incidents: Takata put that figure at 84, if we add the ruptures in each of the four defect notices.
Third, we learned that the recall system sucks – 77 percent (65) of the incidents occurred in vehicles that had already been recalled but not remedied.
But playing chicken with Takata differs from the NHTSA-Firestone standoff in one key respect: Takata cannot directly recall vehicles as tiremakers – which have distinct recall obligations from other OEM component manufacturers – do.
And unlike any recall to come before in the history of recalls, NHTSA will apparently be coordinating the whole enchilada. There is, however, a nifty tie to the Firestone recalls. The agency is tapping a heretofore unused power granted by the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, passed in the wake of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire crisis. Interesting historical irony for NHTSA scholars. For consumers, that means that the zillions of inflators will pass through three entities: Takata, the vehicle manufacturers and NHTSA. How this plays out we'll have to wait and see. But the days of filing a recall and doing your thing appear to be gone for now.