Honda feels added weight as airbag probe widens

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., discusses Takata airbag systems at a hearing last month.

If there is one car company that has felt the whole weight of the Takata airbag inflator scandal, it is Honda. First, it used Takata to source more than 90 percent of its airbags. It was a partnership that began more than 20 years ago and that only lately has been eased. And, now it seems that even going outside its traditional source, using ARC Automotive airbags to fill in gaps 15 years ago, is just adding to the weight of the issue.

According to a report on Bloomberg News yesterday, the automaker used ARC inflators in its products in 2000 and 2001. The automaker said it is looking into the number of vehicles involved to determine its impact.

ARC was notified this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that the agency was looking into its inflators following two reports of trouble. Specifically, ARC provided airbag parts to Fiat Chrysler Automotive in 2009 for use in the automaker’s minivans and it provided inflators to Kia which used the parts in a sedan. NHTSA said that the reports it had received merited further investigation. ARC, a private firm based in Knoxville, Tenn., is cooperating with federal investigators.

As the investigation widens, Honda has felt it yet again as it now has to look at inflators that were made by a different manufacturer, just in case some of the second firm’s devices are faulty.

The whole issue began more than a decade ago when reports began to be heard that there were problems with airbags made by Takata. They circulated through the early 2000s and resulted in a major series of safety recalls, beginning in 2008. Since that time, the recall has grown steadily. Takata, for its part, has bobbed and weaved like a prizefighter trying to avoid the swings of its opponent, NHTSA. Its foot-dragging on the whole issue finally resulted in a consent decree, signed by the manufacturer in June. At that time, the inflator recall ballooned to become the largest in history as nearly 34 million vehicles were affected by it. In the weeks following the decree, millions of vehicles were added to the number so that now more than 41 million vehicles have been placed on the list in the United States alone. A final list of vehicles affected by the recall was announced by NHTSA early this month. Worldwide the number is more than 50 million vehicles. More than 24 million Honda vehicles have been impacted by the recall.

The issue appears to be caused by deteriorating propellant. As it deteriorates, possibly due to moisture contamination, the propellant – ammonium nitrate – becomes more powerful, causing too much pressure within the inflator housing. That extra pressure causes the housing to rupture, breaking apart into shrapnel-like shards the hurtle throughout the passenger compartment, often with deadly effect. To date, eight deaths have been linked to the faulty inflators and more than 100 injuries have likewise been linked to them. Observers have speculated recently that both numbers will likely rise.

In the meantime, Takata has rejected a claims fund, suggested by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., similar to that established by General Motors in its ignition switch recall. The manufacturer has indicated that it sees no need for such a fund, as it believes the lawsuits filed in relation to this suit will do.

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