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Did air bag maker Takata sacrifice public safety to save money?

Former Takata engineer Mark Lillie is willing to testify that they did. According to Auto News, the former employee warned the company that the cheaper ammonium nitrate solution they chose to use in their inflators in 1999—a cheaper alternative to what they were using prior to that—was dangerously unstable.

Further, he states that the replacement air bags now being used in Takata air bag recalls have inflators with the same chemistry—and a similar risk of exploding.

Lillie is apparently willing to testify to these facts in a court of law.

Takata Air Bags Explode and Cause Injuries

About six deaths and hundreds of injuries have been linked to exploding Takata air bags—bags that instead of deploying properly, explode with too much force, sending metal and plastic shrapnel shooting into the vehicle’s interior. Victims have suffered knife-like wounds, vision and hearing loss, and severe wounds leading to excessive bleeding and death.

Just recently, Honda—the automaker most affected by Takata air bag problems—stated it was going to conduct a global investigative recall. In addition to replacing the defective air bags, they planned to conduct studies on the old ones, to try to determine just what is causing the problem.

Takata has noted that manufacturing issues and high humidity can combine to cause the explosions, but they’ve failed to pinpoint the exact problem.

Lillie, on the other hand, claims he knows exactly what the problem is.

Engineer Warned Takata of Propellant Dangers

In 1999, Lillie warned Takata about the dangers involved in switching from the synthetic compound “Tetrazole,” a more expensive solution used in air bag inflators, to the cheaper ammonium nitrate. While working as engineering manager in Takata’s Moses Lake, Washington location, he told his supervisors about the dangers—namely, that the compound could expand and contract as temperatures change, increasing risk of explosions.

When the company failed to take heed of his warning, Lillie left.

“I knew that ultimately there were going to be catastrophic failures,” he told Bloomberg. “I didn’t want my name associated with it.” He asserted in a design review meeting that the propellant was not appropriate, and that if the company used it, “somebody will get killed.”

Takata has stated the compound is safe, but has formed an independent review panel to investigate manufacturing weaknesses that may have led to the problem.

A Bloomberg review of the company’s patents showed Takata was aware of potential stability issues with ammonium nitrate as far back as 1985.

Takata Under Federal Investigation

Two federal investigations are currently ongoing into Takata’s handling of the air bag issue, with the NHTSA recently calling for anyone with insider information to come forward.

So far, over 24 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide because of defective Takata air bags. Last November, the NHTSA called for an expansion of previous regional recalls to include all driver’s side air bags, but Takata has resisted the call. Automakers like Honda, Toyota, and Chrysler, however, have expanded recalls to include all 50 states.

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