Takata, one of the largest suppliers of airbags, has struggled with stabilizing a compound that is thought to be the cause of airbag ruptures linked to five or more deaths and several dozen injuries. As such, the company has been under fire.
The company has become the focus of a growing global safety crisis with more than 16 million vehicles, across 11 automakers being recalled because the airbags can violently explode when deployed sending metal debris flying into the vehicle.
Since as far back as 1995, Takata expressed concern over using the compound, ammonium nitrate, in a patent application, saying it was vulnerable to temperature changes and under excessive pressure, “may even blow up.” Yet, still, the company said it would stabilize the compound. By 2001, the compound was also being used in its propellant, which generates the gases that inflate the airbag.
“One of the major problems with the use of ammonium nitrate is that it undergoes several crystalline phase changes,” says a Takata patent filed in June 1995 by the company’s research lab in Farmington Hills, Mich., the Automotive Systems Laboratory.
One of those phase changes, the patent application points out, occurs at approximately 90 degrees Fahrenheit and is accompanied by large changes in volume to the propellant, which is placed in airbag inflaters in the form of wafers or tablets that resemble aspirin pills.”
In congressional testimony, Takata said it has begun investigation airbag ruptures in 2007 and has attributed hem to manufacturing flaws in the propellant, problems it claims have since been fixed. The company still continues using ammonium nitrate in replacement airbags and contends the airbags are safe. But, as recently as December 2013, the company filed a patent application that highlights lingering concerns over the compounds “vulnerability to moisture and changes in temperature.”
Former Takata employees allege the patent documents showed that the company had long been aware of the risks associated with its choice of propellant and that those risks have yet to be resolved. Therefore Takata was aware of the severe issues with use of this product early on.
Although Takata contends the problems were fixed in the early 2000s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has reopened an earlier investigation into four death, in Hondas, related to the airbags since 2008 and thereby the company is subject to criminal investigation.