Takata airbags with exploding inflators have been killing and injuring drivers since 2004, when the first death was reported. Defective airbags were installed in over a dozen different US, European and Japanese makes between the years 2000 and 2008. However, numerous media sources now report that they have been installed in a number of current (2015) General Motors models as well. In this case, it is the side airbags that are the problem. GM has issued a recall of over four hundreds of these passenger cars and SUVs.
The problem with the inflators began when Takata started replacing the original propellant gas, a tetrazole – an expensive, synthetic compound – with cheap ammonium nitrate. It’s the same substance used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995 by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh. In warm, humid climates, volatile ammonium nitrate produces a chemical reaction with the metal material of the inflator housing, weakening the structure. This causes the housing to explode, sending shrapnel into the front seat occupant’s face, neck and upper torso. The first police officers on the scene of the first fatality mistakenly thought the driver had been murdered with a knife.
To date, well over 19 million vehicles from almost a dozen US manufactures have been recalled. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued letters to seven more companies, advising them of the concern. According to the agency administrator, Mark Rosenkind, this may be the “largest and most complicated” recall in the history of consumer protections.
Takata informed regulators that it would cease using ammonium nitrate earlier this summer, just before the House Panel began holding hearings on the matter.
In addition to the current list, the following 2015 GM models are being recalled:
- Chevrolet Camaro, Equinox and Malibu
- Buick LaCrosse
- Cadillac XTS
- GMC Terrain
Up until recently, Takata claimed that the defective airbags were only installed in the front seats on older models. This past summer, the NHTSA received a report of a side airbag exploding in a 2015 VW Tiguan SUV. The agency will soon hold a public meeting in Washington DC in order to discuss the ongoing investigation and decide whether or not it will be managing the recalls going forward. So far, less than 5 million airbags have been replaced, and new units are in short supply. Owners of the GM models can expect to be contacted by the dealerships where the vehicles were purchased. GM representatives have said that replacements for the faulty inflators are being delivered, and the company will have loaner vehicles available. Dealers will arrange for pickup and delivery at no charge to consumers.
So far, no injuries or fatalities have been reported with the specific GM models listed above. However, vehicle owners are urged not to delay having their vehicles serviced. It is ironic that a device intended to enhance auto safety should be responsible for severe injury and death – but this is what happens when corporate greed trumps safety concern. Takata began using ammonium nitrate in order to cut costs and increase its profit margin. Now, it will be paying out judgments and penalties that may run into the billions.