85 million Takata airbags haven't been recalled--but that could change

April 15, 2016

On, and on, and on the Takata airbag recall goes. Where it stops, nobody knows--but according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, things may get much, much worse before they get better.

A recap

Worldwide, 50 million Takata airbags have been recalled to date. Of that number, 28.8 million have been installed on U.S. vehicles.

The problem with the devices is that they use ammonium nitrate to inflate airbags during collisions. Unfortunately, ammonium nitrate can easily become destabilized, with explosive results. For reference, the compound was used during the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and its sale is now regulated by the federal government.

Scores of Takata airbags equipped with ammonium nitrate have exploded upon deployment, pelting vehicle occupants with shrapnel from the devices. To date, the airbags have been linked to over 100 injuries and 11 deaths. Ten of those deaths have occurred here in the U.S.

Even though a great deal of evidence suggested that ammonium nitrate was to blame for airbag explosions, Takata remained defiant before regulators, insisting that the compound was safe to use. Last November, however, the company finally agreed to phase out ammonium nitrate by 2018. Two months later, researchers conclusively linked the compound to Takata's failed airbags. 

Looking forward

When Takata agreed to stop using ammonium nitrate, it went one step further: Takata also agreed to declare all airbag systems using ammonium nitrate unsafe unless it could prove otherwise by 2019. That, in turn, would almost certainly trigger a recall of those devices.

How many additional airbags would that affect? Initial estimates put the figure at around 90 million, and those guesses appear to be more-or-less on-target. Yesterday, NHTSA said that roughly 85 million Takata airbags make use of ammonium nitrate but haven't yet been recalled. In that number are likely the revamped airbags designed for Honda in 2009--airbags that have yet to be linked to any injuries or fatalities.

Of the 85 million airbag inflators that might be affected, NHTSA says that 43.4 million are passenger-side devices, 14.5 million are driver-side devices, and 26.9 million are side airbag devices.

Impact

While an expansion of the Takata recall could save lives, it could also cause huge headaches for automakers, who are currently scrambling to find safe replacements for the airbags currently affected by recalls. It would also have a massive impact on dealerships, whose service departments would be further swamped with repairs.

And that's to say nothing of Takata, which is already facing up to $3.5 billion in fines and other expenses linked to the fatally flawed devices. 

Where will it all end? We'll know in three years--though if Takata bows to pressure from regulators and the public, things could change even sooner.

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