Carmakers battle airbag explosions
Tokyo/Detroit - A year ago Takata, the world's second-largest maker of car safety parts, believed it had finally contained a crisis more than a decade in the making.
It was wrong.
Japanese carmakers including Honda and Nissan on Monday recalled 2.9 million vehicles globally over Takata airbags that are at risk of exploding and shooting shrapnel at passengers and drivers, taking the tally of Takata airbag recalls over the past five years to about 10.5 million.
Those vehicles carry airbags made from 2000-2002 when, Takata says, it botched production of airbag inflators and lost related records.
And that total is likely to increase further.
Takata now says it is willing to replace more air bag inflators made from 2000-2007 that it supplied to Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, BMW, Chrysler and Ford for vehicles sold in the United States.
In April and May 2013 Takata customers, led by Honda and Toyota, recalled more than four million vehicles due to the risk that defective airbag inflators could blow apart and shoot metal shards into vehicles in the event of an accident.
Takata and Honda told US safety regulators that the core of the problem was how the explosive material used to inflate Takata airbags had been handled and processed from 2000-2002 at plants in the United States and Mexico.
But just weeks after the 2013 recalls, on 14 May, a 10-year-old Honda Fit (known in SA as a Jazz) was involved in an accident in western Japan that raised doubts about whether these recalls had gone far enough.
The Fit's passenger-side air bag exploded; investigators found the metal ejected by the airbag was so hot it set fire to the instrument panel and glove compartment.
The Fit had not been part of earlier recalls and it raised a doubt about whether more defective parts could be in circulation. Honda engineers tried for six months to recreate the explosion but failed.
Then, this month, Toyota recalled another 650 000 cars in Japan for defective Takata airbags and called back 1.6 million vehicles previously recalled overseas, an unusual step.
A complication, Toyota said, was that Takata's records had proven to be incomplete. Takata spokesman Toyohiro Hishikawa confirmed that the company had discovered a problem with records kept at its plant in Monclova, Mexico.
Short of replacement parts from Takata, Toyota has decided to turn off airbags in Japan as customers come to dealerships with recalled vehicles, judging that a passenger-side airbag that doesn’t work is less of a threat than one that could explode.
On Monday Honda expanded its recalls, calling back 2.03 million vehicles globally, including the 2003 Fit/Jazz , over the passenger airbag inflator flaw.
Nissan also said it was recalling 755 000 vehicles worldwide - although Nissan SA has said that according to current information at its disposal, no Nissan models in South Africa were affected. Mazda has also recalled 159 807 vehicles.
Honda, Nissan and Mazda said they would also turn off passenger airbags in Japan.
Yet more vehicles could be recalled if an ongoing US safety investigation finds evidence of wider problems.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is examining whether Takata inflators made after 2002 are prone to fail and whether driving in high humidity contributes to the risk for airbag explosions.
That would go beyond the manufacturing glitches that Takata and Honda previously identified.
Takata told the NHTSA it would support replacements of certain driver-side airbag inflators made between 1 January 2004 and 30 June 2007, as well as certain passenger-side inflators made between June 2000 and July 2004. Takata did not, however, admit that there were safety defects in these inflators.
Since the recalls in April and May 2013, there have been at least six cases of Takata inflators exploding in the United States and two in Japan.
In August, an inflator ruptured in a 2005 Honda Civic in the United States, sending a “one-inch piece of shrapnel into the driver's right eye”, according to a complaint filed with the NHTSA. In January, a 2002 Toyota Corolla in Shizuoka, Japan had its airbag explode, sending hot shrapnel into the car and burning the passenger seat.
Carmaker, regulartors and safety advocates agree airbags, including those made by Takata, have saved thousands of lives since their widespread adoption in the 1990s.
But in order to work, airbags need to inflate in less than half the time it takes to blink an eye, just 40 milliseconds on the passenger side, according to Takata. That requires the use of powerful and potentially dangerous explosives in inflators which require careful handling and precise calibration.
Takata uses ammonium nitrate in its inflators, an explosive compound that is volatile and highly sensitive to moisture. The manufacturing glitches meant the inflator propellant could burn too fast and blow apart the metal casing surrounding it, sending out hot gas and shrapnel.
The recalls have been most costly for Honda.
In May 2009, 18-year-old Ashley Parham was driving a 2001 Honda Accord when she bumped into a car in her high school parking lot outside Oklahoma City. The Accord's air bag exploded and metal shrapnel sliced Parham's carotid artery. She bled to death, one of two deaths linked to Takata air bags.
In Japan, drivers who began to respond to recall notices this week were sent home from Toyota dealerships with a yellow warning label on the window visor.
“Warning: Passenger Airbag Inoperative,” it reads. “We recommend you sit in the back seat. If you must sit in the front seat, push it all the way back and use a seatbelt.”
Tomoki Nakagawa, 52, said his mechanic had turned off the passenger airbag on his silver Noah minivan and told him to avoid carrying passengers.
“I bought a minivan because I need to carry many people,” he said. ”If there is an accident and the injury gets more serious because there was no air bag, how is Toyota going to respond?”