6 Things You Should Know About What Led Up To Takata’s Massive Airbag Disaster

Over the past two years, 16 carmakers have recalled millions upon millions of vehicles equipped with Takata-produced, shrapnel-shooting airbags linked to 14 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Investigations have revealed the cause of the ruptures, but a new report sheds light on how the defective safety devices ended up in so many vehicles. Like many shortsighted bad decisions, it came down to money.

The story starts nearly 20 years ago when General Motors was approached by Takata about a new, cheaper-to-make airbag, The New York Times reports.

The Times’ report goes into great detail about the discussions between “old” General Motors, its long-time parts supplier Autoliv, and Takata reps. Here are 6 things you should know about the history of Takata’s now-volatile airbags.

1. Looking For Sales And Savings
Back in the late 1990s, Takata was well-known as a supplier of seatbelts for U.S.-based car manufacturers, but the small Japanese company was looking to bring its airbags to the states.

To do so, they created a version of traditional airbags that used a different chemical component, ammonium nitrate, to inflate the bags.

These airbags, the supplier said, could save carmakers a few dollars per safety device.

That was an offer General Motors found enticing.

2. Not So Fast
Armed with this new information — and price point — for airbags, GM approached longtime supplier Autoliv about making a similarly priced device with the same components, the Times reports.

Linda Rink, who was a senior scientist at Autoliv assigned to the GM account at the time, recalls being told that if the company couldn’t meet the price, it would be out a customer.

However, Autoliv’s scientists quickly became concerned with the airbag’s production.

“We just said, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’re not going to use it,’” Robert Taylor, Autoliv’s head chemist until 2010, tells the Times, noting that the way the component expanded blew the inflator to bits.

3. Sounding The Alarms
The Autoliv engineers tell the Times that their findings were relayed to GM and, it was their impression, to other automakers.

However, a current rep for Autoliv couldn’t confirm that to the Times.

“We knew that GM was getting low-cost inflators from others,” a former employee of Autoliv, who worked on the project, said. “That was a dangerous path.”

4. Recruiting Others
After GM adopted the Takata airbags for some vehicles, other automakers followed, including Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Toyota.

A spokesperson for Honda tells the Times that “there was no industry understanding” at the time they began using the inflators in the U.S. that ammonium nitrate as a propellant was risky.

5. Other Studies
Still, the Times reports that Autoliv continued to worry about the use of such a volatile component, and it wasn’t alone.

A 2003 presentation by TRW, another supplier that used ammonium nitrate in airbags for a time, outlined in an expert presentation the well-known issues with the chemical’s use in airbags, including the ability to deploy with a “explosive response.”

6. A Lack Of Oversight
Despite the reports and presentations, Takata was able to find suppliers for its airbag components — although that did prove difficult at times.

The Times suggests that the airbags continued to be made, in part, because of a lack of self-regulation.

According to the Times, safety regulators don’t have much say in airbag design and performance specifications, as they are typically set by a consortium of automakers.

Tacit maintains that specifications set by automakers did not include anticipation of problems with the airbags when exposed to heat or humidity — two factors that have been determined to make the airbags more volatile.

Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, tells the Times that while NHTSA should have been more involved, the system wasn’t designed that way.

“Automakers play a big role,” she said. “They’re expected to be involved with their suppliers in a very detailed way.”

Still, some former employees for Takata say that involvement wasn’t prevalent at times, noting that some engineers manipulated tests to show automakers.

A Cheaper Airbag, and Takata’s Road to a Deadly Crisis [The New York Times]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.