Takata Failures Seen Caused by Design, Chemistry, Climate

  • Findings based on tests by Orbital ATK, hired by automakers
  • Safety device linked to 10 deaths, 19 million vehicle recalls

Researchers hired by a coalition of automakers found that moisture -- seeping from the environment into the inflator and not dried by a chemical -- is the reason why Takata Corp. air bags rupture and spray shards of metal and plastic at motorists.

The findings from Orbital ATK, a Dulles, Virginia-based company that makes rocket-propulsion systems, will be used by government regulators to determine how many vehicles equipped with Takata air bags need to be recalled. Determining the root cause of Takata’s inflator ruptures also has held automakers and the supplier back from deciding how recall costs should be shared.

All three of the conditions outlined in the statement -- poor design, lack of water-absorbing chemicals and high atmospheric temperatures with wide ranges -- have to be present for the air-bag inflators to be at risk for rupture, said David Kelly, a former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Kelly, who commented on the findings in the statement, was hired by the automaker group known as the Independent Testing Coalition to run the tests last year.

“We are confident this is the root cause for these vehicles,” he said in an interview.

Takata fell 0.4 percent to 483 yen at the close in Tokyo. The shares have lost 64 percent in the past year.

Moisture, Humidity

The findings are specific to Takata inflators with ammonium nitrate that don’t also include a moisture-reducing chemical. Those inflators need long-term exposure to high-humidity climates with big differences in daytime and night temperatures, like those found in Florida, Kelly said. And their design allows moisture from high humidity to build up inside the inflator assembly, he said.

The group didn’t specify what it means by “long term,” but it’s more than a few days, Kelly said.

Even though today’s findings may help accelerate repairs, the affected vehicles could have to return to dealerships to get fixed yet again, if NHTSA decides the ammonium nitrate propellant itself is too unstable for on-board operating conditions, said Rebecca Lindland, a senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

“This recall is not going away any time soon, and hopefully the death toll won’t rise while the investigation continues,’’ she said.

Kelly said the group’s work so far was limited to investigating inflators in four specific NHTSA recalls covering 23 million inflators. An additional 5 million inflators are being recalled, and the group hasn’t yet looked at those designs.

‘First Step’

“Identifying this multivariate root cause is an important first step,” Kelly said in the statement.

Automakers including Honda Motor Co. have recalled more than 19 million vehicles equipped with Takata air bags, the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history. The exploding air bags have been linked to at least 10 deaths, most involving vehicles made by Honda, Takata’s biggest customer and a minority shareholder.

Some recalled models have air bags that may be susceptible over time to moisture intrusion, which in turn may cause the device’s inflator to rupture in a crash, Honda said previously.

Inflator Production

Takata produced about 87.3 million inflators with two kinds of ammonium nitrate propellant and supplied them to auto manufacturers in North America as of the end of June 2015, the company told NHTSA in response to an order issued that month.

The company may eventually have to recall all of them, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said during a Nov. 3 press conference.

Production of replacement inflators was ongoing for at least a dozen automakers at that time, including Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Co., BMW AG, Volkswagen AG and Tesla Motors Inc., according to Takata’s response to the NHTSA order.

Federal investigators are reviewing the industry task force’s report while its investigation into all Takata ammonium nitrate-based inflators continues, said Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesman for NHTSA.

Safety Agreement

Under an agreement Takata signed last November, all inflators with ammonium nitrate will eventually be recalled unless Takata can prove their long-term safety, he said.

Separately, Takata has asked scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany to investigate the root cause of the ruptures. Honda also has commissioned its own investigation. Today’s findings were consistent with Takata’s own research, the company said in a statement.

“We fully cooperated with ITC to support their analysis, and we will continue to work closely with them, NHTSA and our customers to take aggressive actions that advance vehicle safety,’’ Takata said.

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