Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), announced on Wednesday that NHTSA was requiring Takata to work with automakers to recall an additional 35-40 million Takata airbags. This brings the Takata airbag recall number in the U.S. to nearly 65 million airbags, the largest in U.S. history.
NHTSA’s announced reason for the expanded recall was that it has concluded that long-term exposure to environmental moisture and wide temperature fluctuations can degrade the propellant used by Takata to deploy its airbags, making the chemical compound unstable an prone to unexpectedly exploding. This announcement illustrates that cumbersome nature of the agency. Major industry-funded studies concluded much earlier that Takata’s airbag propellant was defective because the ammonium nitrate propellant that Takata uses inside its steel inflator casing can become unstable over time, and faster when exposed to high humidity and high temperatures. One such study was conducted by Faunhofer Institute, a German company hired by Takata. Partial results from Faunhofer’s investigation, which were released in June 2015, implicated the unstable nature of ammonium nitrate as a cause of the Takata airbag problem. NTHSA has known about this problem for some time.
In NHTSA’s announcement, Mr. Rosekind blamed Takata for the serial recalls, citing Takata’s efforts to manipulate testing data and mislead regulators. Takata and Honda were aware of an airbag rupture in a Honda vehicle as early as 2004, but did not alert safety regulators or issue a recall. Former Takata engineers have said that Takata conducted secret tests on inflaters it retrieved from scrapyards that year, but ordered the data destroyed after the two inflaters cracked under testing.
In addition, documents unsealed as part of lawsuits against Takata have shown that Takata manipulated data as early as 2000 to conform with automakers’ safety requirements. All the while, Takata engineers struggled to stabilize ammonium nitrate, the cheap chemical compound that only Takata uses as an airbag propellant. Even as deaths, and recalls, mounted, Takata maintained that limited manufacturing errors were at fault, not a fundamental problem with the propellant. The first recall, in 2008, affected only about 4,000 cars.
“It’s because of how long it took for everyone to realize what’s going on — that’s why it went from a small recall to the largest recall in American history,” Mr. Rosekind said. “We’re talking about propellant degradation. That’s different from a manufacturing defect.”
He said valuable time was lost because of Takata’s obfuscation. Valuable time was also lost because NHTSA, like General McClellan, has the slows.