A recalled Takata airbag inflator. File photo: Joe Skipper / Reuters

Tokyo, Japan - Takata's bankruptcy filing in June was meant to draw a line under the auto industry's biggest safety recall, but last week's announcement of more air bag inflator recalls suggests automakers could face fresh liabilities in the future.

Late in 2015 US regulators gave Takata until the end of 2019 to prove that its replacement air bag inflators - which add a drying agent to combat moisture that can set off the ammonium nitrate compound in an inflator, with potentially lethal results - are also safe.

If Takata fails that test - and some industry consultants, explosives experts and former employees question whether the workaround will guarantee safety in the long term - the 100 million or so replacement inflators currently being installed may themselves need to be replaced.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week: "Without proof that the desiccated inflators are safe, they will also be subject to recall."

The agency declined to comment on the risk that additional inflators may be subject to recall.

Raising questions

The NHTSA announced last Tuesday that new testing at Takata prompted it to declare 2.7 million of the new airbag inflators defective, raising questions about the risk from replacement air bags as moisture can still seep into the propellant of some inflators.

Takata's customers, which have so far borne much of the estimated $10 billion (R129 billion) cost of replacing faulty inflators, could be on the hook for future liabilities in the event that Takata fails to prove that the desiccant workaround is sufficient.

Last week's recall was the first to involve Takata bag inflators that use a drying agent. Nearly 20 automakers have been affected by the airbag recalls, and some still use Takata inflators for replacements in the recalls. Several - including Honda, Toyota and Nissan - have said they will stop using Takata inflators for new contracts for future models.

Potential impact

Nissan chief sustainability officer Hitoshi Kawaguchi said: "If the NHTSA in the future raises issues about the safety of desiccated inflators we will of course comply with their orders, but right now our focus is on getting replacement inflators to our customers."

Toyota said it was "working closely with all stakeholders, including Takata, other suppliers and relevant agencies, to assess any potential impact and take action accordingly" on the recall issue. Honda, Takata's biggest client, declined to comment.

Takata says it has produced about 100 million replacement inflators containing drying agents: the 2.7 million recalled last week used calcium sulfate, and the rest contain zeolite.

Spokesman Toyohiro Hishikawa said: "We still have to prove the safety of our desiccated inflators, but we believe those using zeolite are safer than those using calcium sulfate."

The company has declined to comment further on the testing process or the NHTSA deadline.

Takata is the only global air bag maker to use ammonium nitrate as a propellant in its inflators. The compound's vulnerability to high temperature and moisture can trigger an explosion that can spew shrapnel inside a vehicle. The defect has been linked to at least 17 deaths, mostly in the United States.

'Lengthening the fuse'

The new inflators with the added desiccant have not been linked to any deaths or injuries, but the problems with the original inflators typically took five years or more to emerge.

Keiichi Hori, who oversees automotive safety components at the Japan Explosives Society, said adding a drying agent can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of uncontrolled explosions.

If the desiccant can prevent all moisture from reaching the inflator propellant, "then it would be possible that the inflators could be used safely," he said. "Otherwise, alternatives should be considered."

But industry consultants predict the recalled parts will themselves eventually be recalled - because ammonium nitrate is fundamentally too volatile - and Takata's carmaker customers may again have to foot the bill given that Takata is unlikely to be able to cover the costs.

Former Takata employees involved in manufacturing inflators have said the desiccant may buy Takata time. One said that by adding the desiccant, "you're just lengthening the fuse, not correcting the problems".


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