For months, the problem of defective airbags made by the Japanese supplier Takata has festered in the global automotive industry as recalls have mounted and carmakers have searched for the reason that the airbags can explode violently, sending pieces of metal into the cabin.
Yesterday, Toyota and Nissan sharply escalated the recalls, adding 6.5 million vehicles worldwide to the 25 million already deemed to contain potentially dangerous components. At least six deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the defect. Vehicles in South Africa are set to be recalled too – you can find these details in the last paragraph of this article.
Toyota said tests carried out on vehicles with Takata-made airbags, including some recovered from junkyards, had shown that the steel inflators, the parts that contain the propellant and can burst apart, were sometimes not airtight. In those cases, the propellant can become destabilised, raising the risk of rupture. Among the tests Toyota conducted were CT scans, like those used in hospitals to see inside the human body, to check the components’ integrity.
“Certain types of airbag inflators were found to have a potential for moisture intrusion over time,” the company said in a statement. Still, Toyota said the relationship between moisture and the risk of rupture was “still very much unknown.” Toyota is among an alliance of automakers — brought together last year as the airbag recalls mushroomed — that has been conducting its own independent tests on the airbags.
One source of concern has been the airbags’ propellant, ammonium nitrate, a cheap but powerful explosive that engineers say can destabilise if contaminated with moisture. Despite its unstable properties, Takata chose to use ammonium nitrate in its airbag inflators because of cost concerns, former engineers have said.
Takata has said that simple manufacturing blunders led some batches of its ammonium nitrate to become contaminated with moisture. But testimony of former engineers, as well as patents filed by Takata, show that the company grappled with ammonium nitrate’s fundamental properties for more than a decade.
Another concern has been the inflator itself, and whether it corrodes over time, allowing moisture to reach the explosive, or propellant, that it encases. George R. Neff, the developer of a system that uses trace radiation to test whether components are airtight, said in an interview that he worked with Takata to check inflator prototypes for leaks in the early 2000s. Speaking publicly for the first time, Neff, president of IsoVac Engineering, a defence contractor, said he told Takata at the time that a helium-based method its engineers used to detect leaks was inadequate.
Its inflators could stop being airtight within several years, and some of their prototypes were already leaking, Neff said he warned. “We found a lot of leakers,” Neff said. “I told them that I thought their leak-test methods were crude,” he said. “In a period of a year or two years or certainly five years, those devices could reach 100% equilibrium with the environment around them.” Takata decided not to buy his system of radiation-based testing, sticking to its helium leak-testing method, Neff said.
“My opinion was asked by the Takata management,” he said. “I gave them my opinion, and they asked me to leave the meeting.” Takata said it had no comment on current or former leak tests on its inflators. In the past, it has said that any problems with the airbags were a result of manufacturing errors, not design flaws.
About 5 million of the vehicles recalled Wednesday were Toyotas. Of that total, 637,000 are in the United States and 1.36 million are in Japan. Thirty-five models were affected, the company said, including top sellers like the Corolla. Nissan’s recall covered 1.56 million vehicles. Toyota and Nissan said they were not aware of any injuries stemming from faulty air bags in the vehicles recalled on Wednesday, which were manufactured between 2003 and 2007. They described the recalls as “investigative” and “preventive.”
Although previous Takata recalls were tied to high humidity in the United States, the moves by Toyota and Nissan on Wednesday did not appear focused on specific areas. Toyota said climate did not factor into its decision. Last month, the administrator of North America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mark R. Rosekind, said Takata was moving too slowly and his agency was reviewing options to speed up the recalls. Takata has said it is committed to cooperating with the safety agency.
Takaki Nakanishi, an analyst and chief executive of Nakanishi Research Institute, said the scale of the latest recall was surprising. “It seemed like the worst was over,” Nakanishi said, “but this raises the prospect that there are still many more vehicles out there that will ultimately be recalled.”
Toyota South Africa has initiated a recall campaign. According to a statement, 195 630 Corolla, Yaris and Run-X models manufactured between 2002 and 2007 are affected. A further 28 376 RAV4, Hilux and Fortuner models manufactured between July 2003 and December 2005 are also part of the campaign. Owners are urged to contact the Toyota call centre on 0800 139 111 for more details.
Nissan South Africa announced that 17 495 Almera models produced between 2004 and 2007 are potentially affected. IgnitionLIVE is awaiting comment from Honda South Africa on whether local models are affected by the expansion of the recall.