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'Exploding' airbag leads to massive recall

2014-06-23 07:14

TOUGH TIMES AHEAD: More than a million Honda vehicles could be involved in a massive Global recall. Image: Honda

UPDATE: Nissan, Mazda, Honda, and Toyota have issued recalls. To date (June 22 2014), only Toyota Corollas, built from April 2002 - June 2003, are affected in South Africa.

TOKYO, Japan - In 2013 Japan's Takata Corporation believed it had contained a crisis more than a decade in the making.

It was wrong.

More than a million Honda vehicles could be subject to an upcoming recall for Takata air-bags that are at risk of exploding and shooting shrapnel at passengers and drivers.

That would be in addition to 7.6-million vehicles already recalled by Honda and other automakers over the past five years.


The total could grow further if Honda's rivals such as Nissan, Mazda and BMW also decide to fix more vehicles that were made in a two-year period when, Takata says, it botched production of air bag inflators and lost related records.

The possible additional recalls would come at a time when General Motors is under scrutiny

over why it took more than a decade to discover a faulty ignition switch linked to at least 13 deaths.

As automakers promote over-the-horizon breakthroughs such as self-driving cars the industry's mass safety-related recalls underline how much can still go wrong with some of the cheapest, most established, technologies.

In April and May 2013 Takata's customers, led by Honda and Toyota, recalled more than four-million vehicles due to the risk that defective air-bag inflators could blow apart and shoot metal shards into vehicle cabins in a crash.

Those 2013 recalls, which ranked as the largest yet for an air-bag defect, contributed to a R3-billion charge for Takata.

Takata and Honda told US safety regulators that the core of the problem was how the explosive material used to inflate Takata air-bags had been handled and processed from 2000 through 2002 at plants in the US and Mexico.

The 2013 recalls involving Honda and four other automakers were intended to close the book on a problem that emerged in 2007 and had already been linked to two deaths.


However, after the 2013 recalls, 10-year-old Honda Fit (Jazz in South Africa) crashed in Japan and raised doubt about whether the recalls had gone far enough. The car's front passenger bag exploded, according to Honda and Japan's transport ministry.

Nobody was hurt so police did not give details but safety investigators found the metal ejected by the air bag was so hot it set fire to the instrument panel and glove compartment.

Honda was immediately concerned. The Fit had not been part of earlier recalls and it raised a doubt about whether more defective parts could be in circulation than previously identified. Honda engineers spent six months trying to recreate the explosion, but failed.

Honda told Japan's safety regulators it was still investigating a later air-bag explosion case but did not see the need for another recall. A month later it said in a statement to Reuters:

"We have confirmed that (Takata) has conducted cause analysis and implemented counter measures and,that in the production process it is taking preventive measures."

Then, in June, Honda's larger rival, Toyota, recalled another 650 000 cars in Japan for defective Takata bags and called back 1.6-million vehicles previously recalled overseas, an unusual step.

A complication, Toyota said, was that Takata's records had proven to be incomplete. Takata spokesman Toyohiro Hishikawa confirmed that the company had discovered a problem with records kept at its plant in Monclova, Mexico.

Short of replacement parts from Takata, Toyota has decided to turn off air-bags in Japan as customers come to dealerships with recalled vehicles, judging an inoperable passenger-side air bag to be safer than a potentially defective one.

Meanwhile, Honda is moving to expand its own recalls, according to the person with knowledge of the matter. That could include more than a million more vehicles.

Honda could also recall the 2003 Fit.

Honda said in a statement: "If we decide it is necessary, we will take measures quickly."


Other automakers are expected to follow. Nissan said it would take "prompt action as necessary". Mazda and Chrysler said they were investigating. BMW said it was in touch with Takata and regulators.

Yet more vehicles could be recalled if an ongoing US investigation finds evidence of wider problems.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is examining whether Takata inflators made after 2002 are prone to fail and whether driving in high humidity contributes to the risk of explosion. That would go beyond the manufacturing glitches that Takata and Honda previously identified.

In a statement, Takata said it had come to believe humidity could be contributing to air bag explosions. The company said it had been working with the NHTSA for several months.

Takata chief executive Shigehisa Takada said: "Takata is committed to the highest standards of safety for our customers and their customers. Takata committed to ensuring the safety and functionality of its air-bag inflators and strives to avoid any malfunction."

Takata spokesman Alby Berman said he could not comment beyond the statement.

Takada, which could not be reached directly for further comment, is the son of Juichiro Takada, who took his Tokyo-based family business from seat belts into the production of air bags from the late 1980's.

Like other suppliers, Takata relies on automakers to make the final determination on the scope and timing of recalls and has typically left disclosure of defects to them.


Since the recalls in April and May 2013 there have been at least six cases of Takata inflators exploding in the US and two in Japan.

In August 2013, an inflator ruptured in a 2005 Honda Civic in the US, sending a "one-inch piece of shrapnel into the driver's right eye", according to a complaint filed with NHTSA.

In January 2013 the bag in a 2002 Toyota Corolla in Shizuoka, Japan exploded, sending hot shrapnel into the car. The passenger seat was burned, Toyota said.

The NHTSA said in June 2014 it was examining whether moisture from humidity could be seeping into inflators designed to be airtight. That could make the volatile propellant inside the inflators unstable, experts have said.

The NHTSA is also looking at Takata inflators supplied after 2002. Its probe includes an examination of air bag explosions in a 2005 Mazda 6, a 2006 Dodge Charger and a 2004 Nissan Sentra.

Chrysler, maker of the Dodge Charger, had not previously been involved in the Takata recall. The Sentra had previously only been recalled for the 2002 and 2003 model years.


Air bags, including those made by Takata, have saved thousands of lives since their widespread adoption in the 1990s, automakers, regulators and safety advocates agree, but to work, an air bag need to inflate in less than half the time it takes to blink an eye, just 40 milliseconds, on the passenger side, according to Takata.

That requires the use of powerful and potentially dangerous explosives in inflators which require careful handling and precise calibration.

In March 2006 Takata's air bag plant in Monclova was rocked by a series of explosions that sent a fireball into the air.

Takata uses ammonium nitrate in its inflators, Honda has said. That explosive compound is volatile and highly sensitive to moisture. Other air-bag makers, among them Takata's larger Swedish rival, Autoliv Inc, have kept their inflator designs a proprietary secret.

Takata identified several manufacturing problems with its inflators, including some at a plant in Moses Lake, Washington, and at Monclova, where the ammonium nitrate was exposed to too much moisture inside the air-conditioned plant.

The manufacturing glitches meant the inflator propellant could burn too fast and blow apart the metal casing surrounding it, sending out hot gas and shrapnel.

The recalls have been most costly for Honda. In May 2009, 18-year-old Ashley Parham was driving a 2001 Honda Accord when she bumped into a car in her high school car park outside Oklahoma City.


The Accord's air bag exploded and metal shrapnel sliced Parham's carotid artery. She bled to death, one of two deaths linked to Takata air bags. Honda and Takata settled with Parham's family out-of-court and details were not disclosed.

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies and a witness for the plaintiffs' lawyers, said it was clear past Takata recalls, which began in 2008, had fallen short.

He said: "What's very troubling is that they haven't resolved this thing once and for all."

In Japan, drivers who began to respond to recall notices this week were sent home from Toyota dealers with a yellow warning labels on the window visor.

"Warning: Passenger Air Bag Inoperative," the warning reads. "We recommend you sit in the back seat. If you must sit in the front seat, push it all the way back and use a seat belt."

Tomoki Nakagawa (52) said he was stunned to find his mechanic had turned off the passenger air bag on his minivan. He was told to avoid carrying passengers, advice that puzzled and frustrated him.

He said: "I bought a minivan because I need to carry many people. If there is an accident and the injury gets more serious because there was no air bag, how is Toyota going to respond?"

Toyota took the step of disabling passenger-side air bags after consulting with Japan's transport ministry, which approved the action. The automaker has told regulators it expects to have replacement parts available around September 2014.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said: "We temporarily suspended the air bag function on vehicles in Japan until the parts become available because (the ministry) requires a remedy at the time of recall filing.

"We considered the lead time of remedy parts preparation and we prioritized the customer's safety."

Automakers that have issued recalls:
Honda, Mazda, Nissan issue recalls over airbags
Toyota recall: Over 4000 SA Corollas affected
'Exploding' airbags: 2-million Hondas recalled
Read more on:    honda  |  nissan  |  chrysler  |  toyota  |  mazda  |  gm  |  tokyo  |  japan

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