Takata Defiant Before Congress, But Says It's Ditching Volatile Ammonium Nitrate In Airbags

June 8, 2015

Over the past year or two, Takata has taken a lot of heat from auto industry regulators, elected officials, and consumers over its deadly airbags. Auto News reports that in a recent appearance before members of Congress, representatives from the Japanese parts supplier defended their actions in the wake of the ongoing recall fiasco, but also said that they were taking steps to change Takata's products to make them less dangerous.

The company's troubles began several years ago, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and automakers began receiving reports of Takata airbags exploding upon deployment. In such situations, vehicle occupants were often pelted with shrapnel from the devices. At least six deaths have been linked to the airbags and more than 100 injuries.

Investigations are ongoing, but at this point it seems clear that the problem with Takata's airbags is moisture and the way that it affects the devices' propellant, ammonium nitrate. Moisture can cause that compound to degrade over time, rendering it highly unstable, and unstable ammonium nitrate can lead to disaster. (For reference, ammonium nitrate was one of the key ingredients in the Oklahoma City bombing, and its sale is now regulated by the federal government.)  

During testimony before a subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Takata's Kevin Kennedy insisted that ammonium nitrate is not dangerous when it is properly manufactured. The problem, of course -- and what committee members quickly picked up on -- is the fact that "manufacture" and "implementation" are two very different things.

That point was illustrated by Kennedy's admission that Takata has for some time mixed much of its ammonium nitrate with a desiccant to absorb moisture and prevent the compound from destabilization. However, he admitted that that's not the case for all versions of Takata's airbags: some continue to be made without a desiccant, leaving them very vulnerable to degradation.

It takes a lot to shock members of Congress, but that did the trick. However, Kennedy tried to allay their concerns by saying that the company would phase out the use of ammonium nitrate and switch to more stable compounds like the guanidine nitrate used by many of Takata's competitors.

The Takata recall has been a long and complicated one. Until recently, the company refused to admit that there was a persistent design flaw in its airbags, and that uncooperative attitude made issuing recalls considerably more complicated. It was generally agreed that moisture was a problem with the devices, so some recalls were issued in states and territories with high humidity, like those along the Gulf Coast. However, evidence suggested that airbags in other parts of the country weren't immune to the problem.

Complicating matters further was the fact that NHTSA was less than eager to recall passenger-side airbags. The agency wanted nationwide recalls of driver-side devices, but those on the passenger side were allowed to remain in place.

Finally in mid-May, after many, many months of hemming, hawing, and foot-dragging, Takata finally agreed to replace all potentially dangerous airbag devices in vehicles from coast to coast. The recall now affects 34 million vehicles, making it the biggest auto recall in history and one of the biggest recalls of any consumer product.

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