The extraordinary sequence of events leading up to Takata’s choice of ammonium nitrate-based airbag inflator propellant and its cost-saving appeal to automakers such as Honda and GM – now tied up with recalls of millions of vehicles as a result – was detailed by a New York Times investigative article at the weekend.

The article, A Cheaper Airbag, and Takata’s Road to a Deadly Crisis, claimed automakers embraced Takata’s cheaper technology almost 20 years ago despite signs that it was unsafe and the airbags made consequently are now central to the auto industry’s biggest recall.

In the 26 August feature, writer Hiroko Tabuchi said General Motors, late in the 1990s, received an “unexpected and enticing offer” from then little-known Japanese supplier, Takata, which had designed a much cheaper automotive airbag.

Citing Linda Rink, then a senior scientist at Swedish-American Autoliv assigned to its GM business, the automaker asked its current airbag supplier to match the cheaper design or risk losing the contracts, the NYT said. Autoliv scientists studied the Takata airbag, found it relied on the ‘dangerously volatile compound’ in its inflator, and, according to Robert Taylor, Autoliv’s head chemist until 2010: “We just said, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’re not going to use it’.”

That compound is now at the heart of the largest automotive safety recall in history – at least 14 people have been killed and over 100 have been injured by faulty Takata-made inflators. Over 100m of the suppliers’ airbags have been installed in cars in the United States alone by GM and 16 other automakers.

Noting details of GM’s decision-making process almost 20 years ago had not been reported previously, Tabuchi said they suggested a quest for savings, of just a few dollars per airbag, compromised a critical safety device, resulting in passenger deaths. More critically, he added, the findings also indicate “automakers played a far more active role in the prelude to the crisis: Rather than being the victims of Takata’s missteps, automakers pressed their suppliers to put cost before all else”.

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There are historic parallels, just-auto notes. Ford’s Pinto proved prone, from about 1970, to catching fire after relatively low speed rear end impacts, leading to deaths, injury and the inevitable lawsuits, and it was shown subsequently that one or more minor modifications, costing from between US$1 and $11 per car, could have greatly reduced the chances of the entry level Fords catching fire.

According to the NYT article, General Motors told Autoliv’s Rink it would switch to buy Takata’s inflators unless Autoliv could make a cheaper design. Her team was told the Takata inflators were as much as 30% cheaper per module, a potential saving of several dollars per airbag and: “That set off a big panic on how to compete.”

In response, Tom Wilkinson, a spokesman for General Motors, which was reorganised as a new company after declaring bankruptcy in 2009, told the New York Times the Takata discussions “occurred two decades ago between old GM and a supplier” and, therefore it was “not appropriate for us to comment”.

“We knew that GM was getting low-cost inflators from others,” Chris Hock, a former member of former chief chemist Taylor’s team who left Autoliv in April, told the paper. “That was a dangerous path.”

The report noted that even with the record recall, fatal accidents and research critical of ammonium nitrate, Takata continues to manufacture airbags with the compound –  and carmakers continue to buy them. The airbags are in 2016 models of seven automakers, and also are being installed in cars as replacements for those being recalled.

Takata told the NYT in a statement it had taken steps to protect the ammonium nitrate it uses against temperature changes which, along with moisture, are the main factors contributing to its volatility. The manufacturer said it was also studying, along with safety regulators and some automakers, inflators with a drying agent “to better understand and quantify their service life”.

NYT‘s Tabuchi went on to explain how the new, cheaper airbag inflator was a turning point for Takata which had been making seatbelts in the US since the mid-1980s [a time when several Japanese automakers were setting up US ‘transplant’ factories and encouraging trusted suppliers to come with them, as there had been quality issues with some US-sourced parts – ed], but was struggling with its fledgling airbag business, started in earnest in the 1990s.

The company had run into trouble with a previous generation of airbags supplied to Nissan which could deploy too forcefully and were linked to at least 40 eye injuries in the 1990s.

Hence Takata began experimenting with alternative propellants but, in 1997, its inflator plant in Moses Lake, Washington state, was hit by a series of explosions that destroyed equipment and greatly curtailed production so Takata was forced to buy inflators from competitors and airlift them to automakers across the country, struggling “to maintain corporate viability”.

It subsequently “embraced the cheaper new compound, ammonium nitrate in its airbag inflators”, according to former employees, one of who claimed back in 2014 considerations over cost led the supplier to use the compound, despite the dangers associated with it. That employee had raised concerns over the risks in the late 1990s, but his warnings went unheeded.

Rival Autoliv analysed the Takata products and former head chemist Taylor told the NYT: “We tore the Takata airbags apart, analysed all the fuel, identified all the ingredients.” When the airbag was detonated, “the gas is generated so fast, it blows the inflator to bits.”

Hock, once in Taylor’s team, said he recalled carrying out testing on a mock ammonium nitrate inflator that produced explosive results that left his team shaken. “When we lit it off, it totally destroyed the fixture,” he said. “It turned it into shrapnel.”

The report said it was believed Autoliv had alerted other company scientists and it was also understood the supplier had alerted other automakers to the danger.

An Autoliv spokesman declined to comment to the NYT on the company’s dealings with auto customers, some of which switched sourcing from Autoliv to use Takata’s new airbags in the early to mid-2000s.

Fiat Chrysler declined to comment, while Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota also told the paper that they had not located any pertinent information from that period.

“There was no industry understanding in the late 1990s that ammonium nitrate propellants, or explosives, were risky, Honda spokesman Matt Sloustcher, said in a statement emailed to the New York Times.

Among the article’s other findings:

  • Autoliv’s concerns were backed by well-known research
  • In 2003, a propellant expert at TRW, which also made airbags with ammonium nitrate for several years in the early 2000s, outlined what he called “well-known issues” with using the compound, warning of “conditions that stimulate an explosive response”
  • The dangers associated with ammonium nitrate made it difficult at times for Takata to find a supplier
  • Airbag design and performance specifications are set by a consortium of automakers, with little involvement by safety regulators
  • No one enforced such specifications as were set
  • An update in the specifications was issued four years before Honda, the automaker most affected by the defective airbags, started issuing recalls in 2008
  • The lack of enforcement of the specifications points to the self-regulatory nature of automotive manufacturing
  • Takata avoided detection in getting the defective airbags to market
  • Honda became aware of Takata-manipulated tests only when a former engineer was deposed by its lawyers

The full article can be read here.

just-auto‘s coverage of Takata airbag recalls