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  • Shop Class: The Takata Airbag Recall Explained

Shop Class: The Takata Airbag Recall Explained

Lies, Deception, and Death

Alex Steele
Jun 4, 2016
It happens with trucks, planes, kid’s toys, and almost any product you can think of: factory defects that result in severe injury or death. The root causes vary, and some of the failures can be considered unpredictable.
A new accredited design, the use of high quality materials, followed by stringent safety testing can still result in an unforeseen tragedy after long-term real-world use of anything. But this stuff really hits home when it never should have happened, and money was the mitigating factor. Then followed by a cover-up, makes it that much worse.
Photo 2/10   |   IStock 000014407401 Large
Airbag Basics
The idea behind rapid inflation of a cushion between the driver and steering wheel during a collision goes as far back as the 1940s and 1950s. Ford and General Motors made a functional system available for retail sales in the early 1970s (Oldsmobile Toronado was the first). It was far from a popular option at the time so production ended in 1977. In the 1990s airbags became more prevalent, and today all new vehicles sold in the United States are at least minimally equipped with a driver and passenger airbag or supplemental restraint system (SRS).
In a nutshell, multiple impact sensors detect rapid deceleration during a collision, in turn sending a signal to a designated ECU. In milliseconds the ECU evaluates the sensor inputs and completes a circuit, deploying the appropriate airbag as needed.
The airbag itself is made up of ventilated nylon fabric. The airbag inflator is a metal enclosure located behind the bag. The inflator has an internal chemical makeup, with small perforations to allow the release of pressure upon ignition.
On deployment, the chemicals are ignited with a heat element controlled by the ECU. The burn produces mostly harmless nitrogen gas. Under high pressure the gas travels out the inflator’s orifices and inflates the airbag. The deployment force splits open the plastic covering in the steering wheel or instrument panel, allowing the bag to fully expand. The driver or passenger is cushioned from impact with interior parts, and the airbag quickly deflates to prevent smothering and enable free movement following the crash.
Supplemental restraint systems have come a long way, but they always provide the greatest protection when used in conjunction with seat belts. Seat belts are an active part of most systems utilizing pressurized retraction of occupants into the seat prior to airbag deployment.
We know the safest place for kids is in the back seat, and airbags will injure undersized occupants. Weight sensors in front passenger seats help determine the occupant’s size, enabling decreased force or prevention of deployment on the little guys.
Photo 3/10   |   Stock Illustration 7235139 Air Bag Glass Collection
There are more inputs than just the impact (crash) sensors to determine deployment in today’s advanced systems: seatbelt buckle, seat position, occupant weight, and rollover sensors, to name a few.
It started with an airbag in the steering wheel to protect the driver during a frontal impact, but now, a new vehicle could contain a dozen or more individual airbags, protecting every passenger from multiple angles, even during a solo-vehicle rollover. Included in that list are:
Driver airbag
Passenger airbag
Center airbag
Knee bolster airbag
Seat-mounted side impact airbag
Side curtain airbag (also deployed during rollover)
Rear curtain airbag
Inflatable seatbelt airbag
Seat cushion airbag
Pedestrian airbag
Takata Airbag Inflator Recall
The Takata airbag recall is the largest automotive recall in U.S. history, currently affecting up to 70 million airbags in vehicles sold by 14 different manufacturers during model years ’02 through ’15. Honda has the most vehicles involved, and the projected recall completion date is 2019.
The recall is based on defective driver and passenger airbag inflators manufactured by Japan based Takata Corp. The inflators can rupture and project metal fragments at occupants during deployment. The defect is responsible for 10 gruesome deaths and more than 100 injuries to date.
To see if your vehicle is affected, visit safercar.gov/rs/takata/takatalist.html
Photo 4/10   |   IStock 000014135025 Medium
Ammonium Nitrate
The NHTSA is attributing the use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant in the effected inflators as the cause. Ammonium nitrate, without the proper use of a drying agent, will degrade over time from the effects of moisture and heat, and become a more powerful explosive than the inflator housing can withstand.
In 1999, Takata made the decision to use ammonium nitrate in their mass-produced airbag inflators due to increasing cost of the more stable tetrazole.
Mark Lillie, a Takata engineer who left in 1999, is willing to testify on behalf of plaintiffs in a probable U.S. class action suit and congressional hearings. Lillie disputed Takata’s use of the dangerously unstable ammonium nitrate formula.
“I knew that ultimately there were going to be catastrophic failures,” Lillie stated in a Bloomberg interview. “I didn’t want my name associated with it.”
As reported by the New York Times, Takata technicians performed testing on 50 airbags in 2004 following an inflator explosion in a Honda Accord. Documents indicating inflator failures during that testing were destroyed, and the information was never disclosed to regulators.
The number of injuries and deaths at this time are relatively small considering the high number of Takata airbags on the road. Right now the red flags should be on the owners of older cars who have not received notice or brought the vehicle in for inflator replacement.
Other Historic Recalls
Photo 5/10   |   GM
1969: General Motors V-8s
We’ve all heard the term “unintended acceleration”, most recently regarding electronic throttle control, but it actually happened in the late ’60s as well. Rubber motor mounts deteriorated with age, and once broken, the engine would jump off the frame under acceleration. This movement pulled on the throttle cable and at times caused an unintended wide-open-throttle situation.
Photo 6/10   |   Ford
1978: Ford Pinto/Mercury Bobcat
Some old-timers remember the Pinto fondly, but most don’t. The defective fuel tank architecture, fit behind the rear axle and in front of the rear bumper, had the potential to rupture the tank following a moderate rear end collision. The spilled fuel could ignite resulting in fire, injury, and death. The scary part of the story was Ford knew all about the hazard but decided the cost to correct production design outweighed the potential loss from lawsuits following inevitable tragedies.
Photo 7/10   |   GM
1980-1982: General Motors X-Cars
Buick Skylark, Chevy Citation, Olds Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix were all GM front-wheel-drive vehicles based on the X-body, a new compact platform aimed at competing with the growing Japanese segment. Only problem – they were junk. Recalls included front suspension coil springs that popped out of their seats, faulty fuel lines, and steering gears becoming detached from the chassis. And these were just some of the safety defects; the rest of the cars were just as bad.
Photo 8/10   |   Ford
2001: Ford Explorer
The Ford Explorer and the term rollover still go hand-in-hand more than a decade after the fact. The top-heavy ’91-’01 SUVs, combined with OEM Firestone tires that had a tendency for tread separation, resulted in a reported 200-plus deaths following rollover crashes. There was a tire recall initiated, and the ’02 model was redesigned, but Fords popular SUV subsequently took a major hit in sales.
Photo 9/10   |   Toyota
2009-2011: Toyota
Three different recalls were implemented dealing with the infamous “unintended acceleration” phenomena. One dealt with a misplaced floor mat trapping the gas pedal in an open throttle position. Another repaired a mechanical defect in the gas pedal assembly causing it to stick.
The third was due to unsubstantiated claims of real unintended acceleration of hybrid models. Not the gas pedal getting stuck following driver application, but the throttle actually opening all by itself. There were drivers claiming their vehicles accelerated on their own and couldn’t be stopped for long periods of time. Uh, apply the brakes, shift to neutral, turn off the ignition?
Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) uses redundant sensors that disable the system when a fault is detected, making true unintended acceleration virtually impossible during on-road driving conditions. But due in part to media reports and ridiculous claims, Toyota and many other manufacturers are now applying “brake override” to their electronic throttle control systems. The updated software disables ETC when the control unit sees brake and throttle application simultaneously.
Photo 10/10   |   GM
2014: General Motors
This one was big and bad for GM, involving faulty ignition switches that shut down the engine, airbags, and power steering without warning. 124 deaths were recorded and nearly 30 million cars were recalled globally. The kicker: GM has been aware of the defective switches since 2005 and failed to disclose the information. They ended up paying $900 million to the Federal Government as part of a deferred prosecution agreement.

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