Honda, Takata Sat On Commissioned Study Showing Chemical Could Cause Airbag Ruptures

While Takata’s shrapnel-shooting airbags have affected millions of vehicles from 11 automakers, Honda is perhaps the one car manufacturer that has felt the brunt of the deadly defect: not only has the company recalled millions of cars, its models have also been responsible for all eight deaths linked to the defect. And now, a new report suggests Honda and Takata kept quiet on a study that questioned the propellent used in the airbags for years. 

The New York Times reports that while Honda was assuring regulators that the airbags’ design was not to blame for spewing metal fragments at drivers and passengers upon deployment, the company and Takata were exploring the possibility that the propellent used in the safety devices was the root cause for ruptured airbags.

In fact, at the time in 2012, Takata had commissioned the High Pressure Combustion Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University to study its use of ammonium nitrate.

As a condition of the study, the findings, which were published in a scientific journal, included no mention of Honda or Takata.

The study dates back to at least spring 2010, when the groups first met to discuss the research. When it was completed in 2012, it cast doubt on the use of ammonium nitrate in airbags, suggesting it was too sensitive to pressure changes.

Researchers found that rapidly changing pressure inside an airbag’s steel inflator could trigger a state known as “dynamic burning.” That, in turn, could lead to excessive internal pressure and potentially cause the inflator to rupture.

Chemicals have long been the powerful mechanism behind airbags. That’s why after some crashes, the driver or front-seat passenger in a vehicle may have chemical burns on their skin.

Typically the inside of an airbag contains an igniter that heats an aspirin-sized tablet of compressed chemical. The ensuing reaction fills the airbag with gas, inflating it at speeds reaching a few hundred miles per hour.

Takata began using ammonium nitrate in its airbags in the late 1990s, because of the chemical’s ability to make airbags inflate in a matter of milliseconds.

Despite commissioning the study, Takata reportedly disputed the methodology and dismissed the conclusions, waiting two more years before sharing the research with regulators.

According to a written account proved to the Times from Takata, the company’s engineers argued if the labs findings were true, there would have been far more ruptures reported.

The groups agreed to carry out further research in the form of 10 months of follow-up tests. However, that study never came to fruition.

According to the Times, Takata and Honda’s role in commissioning the Penn State study contradicts public statements made in regulatory filings by the companies which minimized the scope of the defect in their interactions with regulators.

The report eventually came to light for regulators when Honda was ordered last year to produce all relevant documents about the defect.

Safety experts tell the Times that news of the research raise concerns about Takata’s past actions.

“This fits into a pattern that they have been involved in from the beginning — to deny, delay, defer and blame other people,” Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a longtime advocate of auto safety, tells the Times. “Takata has gone a long way to try to suppress information about this disaster with these bad airbags, and this is an important piece of it.”

News of the study comes just a day before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is set to hold yet another meeting to address the slow replacement of defective airbags.

NHTSA will use the meeting to call on other auto parts manufacturers to aid in expediting the replacement parts needed to repair the millions of recalled vehicles.

Takata and Honda Kept Quiet on Study That Questioned Airbag Propellant [The New York Times]