Takata was a safety equipment manufacturer that started in Japan in 1933. The company began manufacturing seat belts in the 1960s. In 1988, the company expanded into airbags and airbag inflators.
In 2013, government agencies, including the NHTSA in the U.S., began receiving reports of malfunctioning airbag inflators.
In some vehicles, the inflators underinflated the airbag, leaving the vehicle’s occupants unprotected. In other vehicles, the inflators exploded, harming the occupants when they might otherwise have gone uninjured in a crash.
Here are some of the facts you should know about the Takata airbag recall.
Problems Leading to the Takata Airbag Recall
Airbags have three main pieces. A collision sensor at the front of the vehicle senses a front-end crash. The sensor only triggers when the collision happens at more than 10 to 15 miles per hour. If the collision happens in a different direction, such as a rear-end collision, or at a slower speed, the sensor will not trigger.
The sensor closes an electrical contact that triggers the inflator. The inflator contains chemicals that rapidly produce a large volume of gas upon triggering. The gas inflates the airbag.
The airbag has vents so the gas can release when the occupant strikes it. The airbag was not designed to stop an occupant’s motion. If it stopped the occupant rapidly, impact with the airbag could cause the same injuries as hitting the steering wheel or dashboard.
Instead, the airbag quickly inflates and deflates to absorb the occupant’s energy and slow them down. In this respect, the airbag acts as a cushion.
Takata had three different versions of its inflators. The first used sodium azide, a highly stable chemical with the potential to emit hydrazoic acid, a toxin. Takata phased out sodium azide inflators in favor of tetrazole inflators. Tetrazole inflators were less toxic, but they cost a lot to produce.
Seeking to reduce costs, Takata switched to ammonium nitrate inflators in the late 1990s. Ammonium nitrate is cheaper than tetrazole but is less stable than either sodium azide or tetrazole.
When used in airbag inflators, ammonium nitrate produced the desired inflation. But at high temperatures and humidity, ammonium nitrate could underinflate or overinflate the airbag.
When it underinflated airbags, it failed to produce the cushion needed to slow occupants during a collision. When it overinflated airbags, it could blow apart the seals and other components, sending shrapnel toward the occupants.
In 2017, 11 deaths and 184 injuries in the U.S. were linked to Takata’s ammonium nitrate inflators. The current death count is up to 19.
Auto manufacturers began the airbag recall soon after the problems began. Takata resisted issuing a recall, but the NHTSA eventually ordered Takata to recall over 42 million cars in the U.S. Takata also recalled millions of cars in other countries that sold vehicles with the defective inflators.
Vehicles Subject to the Takata Airbag Recall
Takata was an OEM parts supplier to most auto manufacturer brands, including:
- Daimler trucks and vans
- Land Rover
The Takata airbag recall was the largest auto recall in U.S. history. It covered many of the makes and models of vehicles sold between 1996 and 2017.
What to Do If Your Vehicle Was Recalled
If your vehicle was subject to the recall, you can get your airbag replaced for free. Immediately after the NHTSA announced the recall, it created a phased system for repairing vehicles because the demand for replacement airbags created a shortage of parts.
The latest group was recalled in May 2021. Currently, manufacturers have enough parts to repair all vehicles under recall. Additionally, the NHTSA is investigating another 30 million cars and may issue further recalls. If others get recalled, the NHTSA will notify owners directly and through public announcements on its website.
The NHTSA also has a VIN lookup tool to tell you whether your vehicle has been recalled.
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