If you have even a passing interest in cars, you’re probably aware of the “Takata scandal.” This resulted in the largest auto industry safety recall in history.
Defective airbags made by Japan’s Takata Corporation – containing the same ammonium nitrate that leveled the Port of Beirut – were linked to at least 25 deaths and almost 300 injuries worldwide. More than 100 million Takata airbag inflators have been recalled by 19 major automakers.
The Takata recalls began in 2013 and involve cars as old as 2001 year-models. But don’t think that this grim complex story is over. According to official figures published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 12 million airbags included in existing recalls are still on American roads (as of July 3, 2020). And, while the NHTSA announced in May that a further 56 million Takata airbags in some 30 million vehicles do not require replacement, some industry insiders disagree.
One such automotive/transportation safety expert is Jerry Cox, who was a consultant to Takata’s American executives in 2014. In his new book, Killer Airbags: The Deadly Secret Automakers Don’t Want You to Know, Cox paints a picture of lives put at risk by a combination of corporate greed and a U.S. auto safety regulation system that he characterizes as “corrupt to the core.”
The Killer Airbags book also offers consumers a how-to guide for identifying if their car is part of the Takata recall and, if so, what to do next.
Founded in 1933 in Shiga Prefecture, Japan, Takata started making seat belts in the 1960s. No stranger to scandal, in 1995 Takata products prompted what was then the second-largest recall in the history of the Department of Transportation. Nearly 8.5 million vehicles with Takata seat belts were recalled after owners complained of these failing to latch, releasing automatically, or releasing in accidents. The cause was found to be components made of ABS plastic, which became brittle over time.
Takata began producing airbags in 1988. By 2014 it held 20 percent of the vast market for these safety devices (90 million vehicles were manufactured worldwide that year alone). Faulty Takata airbags may have been installed in some Honda models as early as 1998. The problem was that, in a tiny percentage of Takata’s airbag inflators, the ammonium nitrate detonated rather than burned when deployed, causing metal fragments to explode into the car’s cabin.
In 2013, following reports of more than 100 related injuries and 13 deaths, 3.6 million cars with Takata airbags were recalled. All of the airbags concerned, or at least their inflator units, were manufactured at Takata’s Monclova plant in Coahuila, Mexico. A huge explosion of ammonium nitrate had devastated the plant in 2006.
“The plant kept cranking out ammonium nitrate inflators, even before Takata could replace the roof and protect the explosive from humidity levels known to hasten degradation of the explosive,” said Cox. “Ammonium nitrate puts millions of Americans at needless risk.”
In July 2014, a pregnant Malaysian woman was killed when a fragment from a defective Takata airbag in her 2003 Honda Civic sliced into her neck during a minor collision. Her unborn daughter died three days later. The victim’s father sued, and in November of that year, the NHTSA ordered Takata to initiate a nationwide airbag recall.
Why Ammonium Nitrate?
“The fundamental problem is that it never made sense to put ammonium nitrate in airbag inflators, except for one thing,” Cox explained. “And that is that ammonium nitrate cost one-tenth as much as the chemicals that every other manufacturer used then, and still use today.”
The NHTSA has stated that “long-term exposure to high heat and humidity can cause these [Takata] airbags to explode when deployed. Such explosions have caused injuries and deaths.” Cox reports that a majority of such malfunctions have occurred in humid regions such as Malaysia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Houston, and Florida. “The problem is that ammonium nitrate will, when it ages … deteriorate,” said Cox. “The more it’s exposed to ‘temperature cycling’ – lower temperatures at some point during the day and higher temperatures later – and the more moisture, you put those combinations together and it makes it happen faster.”
Rather than acknowledge that ammonium nitrate was the problem from the get-go, Takata initially blamed their inflator issues on an array of problems in the manufacturing process at the Monclova plant (and previously in the very same process at a since-shuttered plant in La Grange, Georgia).
This was still Takata’s party line when Cox was hired by their American executives to help them develop a crisis management strategy for their impending airbag crisis. He says he didn’t recommend a recall back then because Takata insisted that ammonium nitrate was safe and told him that they had test results to prove it.
“The company had faked reports …They were all phony,” Cox recalled. “They lied to their own customer, Honda, and told them that the tests showed that ammonium nitrate was great. When in fact the tests showed that with ammonium nitrate you had a substantial risk of inflators blowing up like hand grenades.”
Takata told U.S. and Japanese regulators that mistakes by workers in handling ammonium nitrate at their Georgia and Mexico plants between 2000 and 2002 had exposed the compound too dangerous levels of humidity.
Takata Pleads Guilty
Cox and Takata parted ways by mutual agreement at the end of 2014.
In 2017 Takata filed for bankruptcy protection after agreeing to plead guilty to criminal wrongdoing – just a single count of wire fraud – to resolve a U.S. Justice Department investigation. The company was ordered to pay a total of $1 billion in criminal penalties stemming from its fraudulent conduct related to its sales of defective airbags.
“For more than a decade, Takata repeatedly and systematically falsified critical test data related to the safety of its products, putting profits and production schedules ahead of safety,” said Chief Andrew Weissmann of the Fraud Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division at the time.
Three former senior Takata executives, all Japanese nationals, were charged with falsifying test results to conceal the defect in the company’s airbag inflators. None have appeared in a U.S. court.
Replacing Like With Like
Once it became impossible to hide that moisture was causing the ammonium nitrate to explode in some of Takata’s airbag inflators, the company still did not abandon that design. Instead, they simply started salting the explosive compound with a drying agent. It was these “desiccated” inflators that were often installed to replace the defective Takata inflators covered by the recall.
“[A] mechanic would remove it and replace it with exactly the same design, just newer,” said Cox. “Consumers had never been through that before, where you had to have multiple replacements of the same part or the idea that a defective part would be replaced by another part known to be defective.”
Some experts, Cox among them, contend that adding a drying agent is insufficient to render the Takata inflators entirely safe. In January of this year, Takata announced that it was recalling 10 million of the replacement inflators, sold to 14 different automakers. Some of these had never even been installed in a vehicle. (The remnants of Takata were acquired by Chinese-owned Key Safety Systems for $1.6 billion in 2018. The successor company is called Joyson Safety Systems.)
The NHTSA had said that it would monitor an additional 56 million of the desiccated inflators, but in May of this year declared them safe. No additional recall was required of automakers.
However, the agency also stated separately that Volkswagen will recall 370,000 vehicles with desiccated Takata inflators, starting at the end of this year. Meanwhile, the NHTSA is reviewing petitions for General Motors to avoid recalling 6 million vehicles with Takata inflators, which the company says could cost them $1.2 billion.
“It’s All About the Money”
The Takata recalls and criminal penalties might suggest that U.S. auto safety regulators came down hard on the company. But the recalls were belated and extremely drawn out. The financial penalties were relatively minor for a company of Takata’s size. And no one from Takata has served even a single day in prison.
Cox points to a “revolving door problem” of former regulators working for the auto industry – and then sometimes returning to once again work as regulators – as exacerbating what was already an epic Takata scandal and mess.
“You have an industry that hires former regulators, the minute they leave their job as regulators,” he said. “People who are literally regulating a company one day and literally the next day they’re working for that company – representing the company vis-à-vis the people who are conducting investigations.”
By way of example, Cox contends that in 2010 the NHTSA requested data on Takata’s airbags, but then “mysteriously” canceled their investigation. It was this decision that Cox said “led to all this death and destruction” from defective Takata airbag inflators. The head of the NHTSA at the time was David Strickland, who in 2013 stepped down to become a lobbyist at a Los Angeles law firm, Venable LLP, whose clients include automakers.
As if that wasn’t questionable enough, Strickland later returned to Capitol Hill as Democratic staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee – the very body that oversees the NHTSA. So if that committee had investigated the actions of the NHTSA over the Takata affair back in 2010, Strickland would have effectively been investigating himself as the administrator of that agency at the time.
“It was corrupt to the core because the [NHTSA] agency really did more to convince Takata that they could get away with this kind of a problem than they did to warn them against it,” said Cox.
“And I want people to understand that there’s nothing really partisan about this. I’ve mentioned what the Obama administration did. Killer Airbags also exposes what the Trump administration has done and not done. It’s not red; it’s not blue: it’s all about green. It’s all about the money.”
The phased Takata recalls began in May 2016 and continued through December of 2019. But this hasn’t ended the tragic Takata saga. Because the NHTSA’s own numbers show that while some 37.5 million Takata airbags have been repaired – 76% of those recalled to date –, a further 11.9 million recalled units remain inside vehicles on America’s roads.
“Recalls generally are not effective. Even simple ones,” Cox explained. “You send out letters, and you only get a small percentage [of responses] … We’re working off a 1966 legislation here, and the only thing that manufacturers have to do is to send a letter.”
Some owners of defective cars may mistake a recall notice for junk mail and not even open it. And the letters are only sent to the vehicle’s original owner, even though it may have since changed hands at least once. Cars affected by the Takata recall may be as old as 2001 year-models. Some have been under recall since 2008.
Cox theorizes that the Takata recall – which was rolled out in phases of “priority groups” defined by complex criteria, with shifting numbers of groups and dates – “appears to have been designed to be this complicated.” In other words, in making a recall process that is never fully effective even less likely to succeed, automakers and Takata were able to save themselves huge amounts of money on the defective inflators that to this day have not been replaced.
Could Your Car Be Affected?
Potentially defective Takata airbags were installed in a huge array of automobile makes and models. Inflators manufactured as long ago as May 1995 have been recalled. Takata airbags were installed in all manner of cars spanning multiple classifications, countries of origin, and price ranges. Even expensive Ferraris, McLarens, Audi R8s, Fisker Karmas, and Jaguar XFs contained faulty Takata airbags.
To find out if your car may require a replacement airbag, visit Cox’s website KillerAirbags.com and scroll down to the “Check Recall Status” tab (which links to an NHTSA page where you can enter your car’s VIN) or the “Get The Recall App” tab (from where you can download a free VIN-check iPhone app, compatible with iOS 8.0 or later). Checking your car’s recall status only takes moments, and is free.
There’s no reason to panic. Only a minuscule proportion of the 100 million-plus potentially dangerous Takata airbags have actually caused harm. But if your car does show up as part of the recall, act swiftly, as the affected inflators do become more dangerous as the ammonium nitrate deteriorates. Cox tells of an Australian driver who had to postpone his Takata airbag replacement under recall and was killed by its exploding inflator the day before his new appointment at the dealership.
Some cars will show up as being under a “do not drive” order. If yours is one of these, contact the appropriate dealership and they will come and collect that vehicle. For example, the NHTSA warns that certain 2001-2003 Honda and Acura models, the 2006 Ford Ranger, and Mazda B-Series vehicles are at far higher risk for an airbag explosion. These vehicles require immediate repair and should not be driven.
Otherwise, take your affected car to the appropriate dealership as soon as possible and insist on a loaner car while your Takata airbag inflator gets replaced.
“The independent monitor [of the Takata recall] has documented cases where dealerships, even though the manufacturer has agreed to provide loaner cars, they have refused consumers loaner cars,” Cox cautioned. “They don’t want to deal with the paperwork … They would rather you have the risk of your head getting blown off.”
So could your car still contain what Cox has called a “ticking time bomb” Takata airbag? Go to KillerAirbags.com to find out!