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NHTSA orders Takata to stop using volatile chemical in its air bags


There have been many automotive recalls in recent decades, but the current Takata air bag recall stands out. Unlike most recalls, which involve just one car company, Takata air bags are found in vehicles made by at least a dozen major manufacturers. Therefore, the number of vehicles recalled is especially large, and effectively coordinating the recall is especially difficult.

For readers who may need a reminder, Takata air bags have been recalled because they can inflate with too much force, leading to an explosion. When these explosions occur, they often send shrapnel into the cab of the vehicle. In the United States alone, seven deaths and nearly 100 injuries have been linked to the faulty air bags.

In recent months, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken control of the recall and has so far fined Takata Corp. at least $70 million. Earlier this week, the NHTSA also announced that Takata’s air bags were not faulty simply because of a manufacturing error. Instead, there is a serious problem with the chemical Takata uses as an inflator propellant.

Of all the major air bag suppliers, Takata is the only company to use ammonium nitrate as the primary inflator propellant. This chemical is used in a variety of other applications, including as an ingredient in fertilizer and as a main ingredient in mining explosives. Although it works effectively as a propellant, ammonium nitrate is less stable than those used by other companies, especially if it is exposed to moisture. This suggests that Takata air bags may be more likely to cause a fatal explosion in humid climates and in vehicles reaching the end of their service.

The NHTSA’s announcement is a big deal for at least two reasons. The first is that it blames the defect on a design flaw affecting all such air bags rather than a manufacturing flaw (contained within a specific period of time).

The second reason is that it greatly expands recall liability and will require Takata to fundamentally change its manufacturing practices going forward. After finishing the current recall, the NHTSA has demanded future recalls of “all Takata ammonium nitrate inflators now on the roads unless the company can prove they are safe.” Takata must also stop using ammonium nitrate as a propellant by a certain date.

For too long, major automakers have been allowed to hide safety problems and delay recalls, in part, because the consequences for doing so have been minimal. Hopefully, the NHTSA’s newer, more aggressive approach is a sign of how such cases will be handled from now on.


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