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The Sad Pathway to Airbag Injury

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Washington, DCAs Takata Corp. and its creditors continue to grapple with bankruptcy proceedings in tandem with a continuation of the supply chain for badly-needed replacement airbag inflators, it’s instructive to look back from whence we came with regard to airbag injuries, lawsuits and recalls.

A lot has happened in three years.

In November 2014 Bloomberg News (11/14/17) undertook an exhaustive investigation of defective airbags associated with the Takata airbag recall. At the time, about 11 million vehicles had been recalled in the US over exploding Takata airbags and the sometimes catastrophic injuries that occurred in association with airbag failure. Globally, the recall count was 17 million in November 2014.

Just over three years later that number has jumped to nearly 70 million. Hundreds have been injured. As for loss of life, there had been a handful of deaths reported globally in 2014. That number has jumped to 16 as of today. When compared to the massive recall of vehicles that carry the potential for danger, 16 appears to be a statistically low number. However, safety advocates correctly say that even one death is one death too many – especially in view of the events that led to how we got here.

In the last year or two, in the face of increasing incidents and press reports associated with the alleged (at the time) Takata wrongdoing, public awareness over the defective airbag issues has intensified in kind. However, in 2014 Bloomberg reported that Takata and some of its automotive clients were doing everything in their power to keep things under the radar.

Bloomberg found that five, out of 12 lawsuits reviewed by the news agency were settled out of court. “It’s very murky,” said Ralph Nader, who has been advocating for auto safety since the mid-1960s. “There’s a lot there that escapes NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), escapes Congress, escapes the media, escapes the consumer groups. The best information is usually coming out of product-liability suits, but they’re settling out. There haven’t been any public trials yet.”

That was in 2014. Today the lawsuits are mounting, Takata is a disgraced corporation and both vehicle owners and their manufacturers continue to scramble over replacing defective airbags in millions of vehicles before there are any additional injuries, or deaths. As Takata goes through the various motions and machinations of bankruptcy, the focus is also on maintaining the capacity to manufacture replacement airbag inflators for those millions of recalled vehicles.

It’s a ticking time bomb for anyone who drives, or rides in a recalled vehicle.

Back in 2014, when the issue broke wide open, The New York Times (11/19/14) detailed the circumstances that saw Takata favor the much less-expensive, but more volatile ammonium nitrate. “It shouldn’t be used in airbags,” said Paul Worsey, an expert in explosives engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in comments to The New York Times in 2014. The compound, he said, is more suitable for large demolitions in mining and construction. “But it’s cheap, unbelievably cheap,” he added.

The New York Times articulated the concerns of two former Takata engineers, who told the newspaper in 2014 that they, together with some other employees of Takata had reservations about the use of ammonium nitrate.

“It’s a basic design flaw that predisposes this propellant to break apart, and therefore risk catastrophic failure,” said Mark Lillie, a former senior engineer with Takata at its propellant plant in Moses Lake, Washington.

“It was a question that came up: Ammonium nitrate propellant, won’t that blow up?” said Michael Britton, a chemical engineer who worked with Lillie at the Moses Lake plant. “The answer was: not if it stays in the right phase.”

That reference to “the right phase” is telling, which we’ll get to in a moment. But first, as the Takata airbag injury issue continues to heat up, it’s instructive to drill down to the point at which Takata began to venture down the wrong path.

Back in the day, airbag manufacturers based their airbags on a propellant called sodium azide, which was volatile and toxic. Airbag manufacturers, including Takata, were looking for a safer alternative.

They found it in a compound known as tetrazole, which was safer and environmentally friendly as well. Engineers at Takata saw it as the breakthrough they had been looking for, and they readied the updated product for their automotive manufacturing clients for the 1998 model year.

But then economics began to conflict with sound engineering principles. Tetrazole could only be manufactured in limited quantities, and tended to be expensive. Using tetrazole as an inflator compound may have met with a sound engineering profile, but at the same time was squeezing the margins too tight for the Takata bean counters. In the face of increasing competition for market share, Takata resumed the search for an alternative to sodium azide that would be less expensive than tetrazole and found one in ammonium nitrate.

Engineers at Takata, however raised red flags, and they only had to go so far as to quote explosives manuals and journals to make their point as to the volatility of ammonium nitrate, which “tended to disintegrate on storage under widely varying temperature conditions” with “irregular ballistic” consequences said Lillie, the former Takata engineer.

According to The New York Times in its report of three years ago, ammonium nitrate cycles through five solid states. As the vehicle goes from receiving the heat of sunshine to the cold of night, the temperature swing is large enough for the ammonium nitrate to change from one phase to another.

Remember Lillie’s earlier comment above, with regard to the acceptability of ammonium nitrate provided it stayed in the same phase?

As it turns out, that’s doubtful – especially in areas of high humidity. That’s one of the reasons why the defective airbag injury recalls have been focused on areas such as Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Southern California and other areas with a similar climatic profile.

Other airbag manufacturers stayed away from ammonium nitrate amidst the compound’s risk for volatility. Takata, however allegedly saw dollar signs with this cheap compound, and ran with it.

The cheaper airbags powered by ammonium nitrate were a hit economically with automotive manufacturers, and Takata’s market share for airbags quickly grew, eventually helping Takata to become the largest single supplier to the automotive industry.

It is alleged however that Takata never shared with anyone the reason as to why their airbags were less expensive, and no one apparently bothered to ask. The reservations of those engineers who spoke out against the use of ammonium nitrate were ignored.
The sheer success of Takata supplying what turned out to be defective airbags that could lead to airbag failure, has contributed to the size and depth of the massive recall, and the near-impossible task of replacing millions of defective and potentially dangerous ammonium nitrate inflators.

Until those inflators are replaced, the risks for airbag injuries will only continue – as well airbag lawsuits.

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