DEFECTIVE CRASH-BAGS: US senator Bill Nelson displays a defective bag made by Takata. Automakers have turned to rocket science specialist Orbital ATK for a solution. Image: AP / J Scott Applewhite
DETROIT, Michigan - The auto industry, fed up with slow progress toward finding out why some air bags explode with too much force, has hired a Virginia rocket science company to investigate.
Ten automakers whose vehicles have been recalled due to problems with Takata crash bags, said on Thursday (Feb 26) they had jointly hired Orbital ATK to explain the problem.
The company makes rocket propulsion systems, small-arms ammunition, warhead fuses and missile controls.
DEADLY CRASH BAGS
The companies also named David Kelly, a former acting administrator of the US' National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as project manager for the investigation.
Air-bag inflators made by Takata can explode with too much force, sending shrapnel into car and truck cabins. At least six people have been killed and 64 injured in the past 10 years and so far about 17-million vehicles have been recalled in the US and 22-million worldwide to replace the inflators.
Takata has been unable to explain the fault though it has known about the problems since at least 2004.
Takata uses ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that quickly inflates its crash bags. Government investigators say the chemical can burn faster than designed if exposed to prolonged airborne moisture which can blow apart the metal canister meant to contain the explosion.
Automakers, Takata and the US government all want to find out just how much humidity and time it takes to cause the problem, both of which are unknown.
Orbital ATK has the ability to quickly simulate the impact of humidity on the propellant over a long time, which is key to finding out the cause, Kelly said in an interview. The company will test inflators taken from cars repaired under recalls.
FINDING THE CAUSE
Kelly said: "The Orbital team has a tremendous amount of experience in being able to test that and being able to look at burn rates on a large scale."
Long-term stability of crash-bag propellant was important, he added, because cars are staying on the road for 10 or 15 years, much longer than in the past. He wouldn't estimate how long it might take to find a cause: "We don't want to prejudge that process. It is much more important for us to get the answer right than to get the answer back."
Orbital ATK will share data with Takata and government safety investigators. Once a cause has been found it would be disclosed to all those involved, as well as the public, Kelly added.
The automakers, led by Toyota, include BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru. Several said privately they hired Orbital to speed up the investigation.
BIG FINE, EVERY DAY
In a statement, Takata said it welcomed Orbital and Kelly and would work with them and the NHTSA on the investigation. The company said it has been in contact with automakers and would support the investigation by sharing the results of its own testing.
Takata is being fined the equivalent of R163 000 a day by the NHTSA for allegedly failing to co-operate in the government's probe of the problem, an accusation that Takata denies. Fines began on February 20 2015 and have grown to more than R1-million so far.