In the story of the exploding Takata air bags, the plot continues to thicken.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, back in 2010, while both Takata and Honda (the automaker most affected by Takata air bag defects) were insisting air bag problems were caused by isolated manufacturing issues, they were looking into another potential factor: the chemical used in the air bag inflators.
It’s called “ammonium nitrate,” and it’s gotten a lot of attention lately because of its likely connection to air bags that have exploded upon deployment, causing over 100 injuries and at least eight deaths. According to a previous Times article, former Takata engineers expressed concern about the chemical when the company first started using it in 2001.
Michael Britton, a chemical engineer that worked with a former senior engineer at Takata, told the Times: “It was a question that came up: Ammonium nitrate propellant, won’t that blow up?”
Turns out that long before the current air bag crisis, both Honda and Takata commissioned a study on ammonium nitrate, but did not reveal the study’s results.
Takata Commissions Secret Study on Ammonium Nitrate
The companies apparently had questions years ago about ammonium nitrate, as they asked the High Pressure Combustion Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University to study it, and report back on any potential links to air bag explosions.
The Times reports that Penn State was not allowed to link either company to the study, and were also forbidden from revealing that Takata had sponsored the study. The results came out in 2012, reporting that ammonium nitrate was sensitive to changes in pressure. Such changes could trigger a state of “dynamic burning,” which could lead to excessive pressure inside the inflator, potentially causing an explosion. Takata reportedly dismissed the findings, and then took two years to share them with regulators.
Did they do anything illegal? Apparently not, since at the time, neither the air bags nor the chemical were subjects of any formal inquiry. What part ammonium nitrate may play in malfunctioning air bags is still unclear, and new studies are underway now to find clear answers.
Still, the companies are now being criticized for failing to come out with this information earlier. Both Honda and Takata have responded by stating that the results from the study were preliminary, and that revealing them at the time would have been premature. Takata also stated that the testing lab used propellant that was manufactured to different specifications than that the company was actually using, and that there were other flaws within the study as well.
Company Suspected Problems Years Ago
The NHTSA asked Takata to expand their recalls back in October 2014, but the company refused, sticking instead to their regional recalls, which included only hot and humid areas like Florida and Hawaii. For over a year the company insisted their air bags were safe, and that it was only isolated manufacturing issues that were affecting just a few of its products.
It wasn’t until June 2015 that the company issued a public apology for those air bags that had caused serious injuries and death, and after that expanded its recalls to include all 50 states. Meanwhile, automakers like Honda and Toyota stepped up to fill the gap, recalling and repairing the vehicles themselves.
Most concerning is that Takata is still using ammonium nitrate in some of its air bags. For that reason, some automakers have refused to use their products in their replacement air bags.
Those filing Takata air bag lawsuits may find Takata’s actions questionable, since they conflict with their position at the time of the study. They were insisting their air bags were safe, while in private, it seems they suspected another more pervasive problem with the basic design of their products.