The tale of Takata and its deadly airbags has all the hallmarks of an epic saga: chaos (among automakers, the public, and regulatory agencies), hubris, and a stubborn reluctance to admit defeat (the latter two among Takata’s top brass).
Also like an epic saga, it has also gone on for a long time — too long. And if recent revelations are any guide, there’s no end in sight.
That’s because, throughout the week, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan each added more vehicles to the already-massive Takata airbag recall. How many? More than 11 million.
The Takata airbag fiasco began at the end of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st, when the Japanese company began using ammonium nitrate as a propellant in its airbags. So far as we know, Takata is one of the only suppliers — if not the only one — to use that compound.
Why would Takata use it? Because it’s cheap and readily available, with many commercial applications. Unfortunately, ammonium nitrate can become very, very unstable, which is why industries that use it tend to do so in very controlled circumstances — controlled in a way that, say, airbag deployment during an automobile accident is not.
In fact, ammonium nitrate was one of the compounds used two decades ago in the Oklahoma City bombing. It is now closely regulated by the Office of Homeland Security.
Over the past several years, automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Takata itself began receiving reports of exploding airbags. The devices would rip upon deployment, pelting vehicle occupants with shrapnel from the airbag system. To date, these explosions have been linked to at least six deaths, most of which have occurred in the U.S., and all of which have occurred in Honda vehicles. (Honda, FWIW, is Takata’s biggest customer.)
Investigators are still trying to determine what’s making Takata’s airbags explode. Their best guess is that the incidents are linked to high humidity. As a result, many recalls have been focused on humid areas of the U.S., like states along the Gulf Coast.
To complicate matters, however, automakers, regulators, and Takata itself continue to distinguish between driver-side airbags and passenger-side airbags. NHTSA has pushed for nationwide recalls of driver-side airbags, but has been perfectly content to limit recalls of passenger-side airbags to high-humidity areas. Given the millions of vehicles affected by these recalls, the distinction between geographic areas and drivers-side vs. passenger-side devices has been very confusing to owners.
And as if that weren’t enough, Takata continues to dig in its heels, trying to convince NHTSA and others that there are too many uncertainties around the airbag flaws to warrant full recalls. (Much like the tobacco industry spent decades trying to convince Americans that there was no proven link between smoking and lung cancer.) To date, Takata has refused to cooperate fully with NHTSA, which at last count was costing the company $14,000 per day.
That brings us to this week, when three major automakers added 11.5 million more vehicles to the Takata recall roster. The worldwide total now stands at around 36 million.
Last fall, NHTSA provided a list of every recalled U.S. make and model, but because the recalls have continued to roll out in dribs and drabs — still limited by state and the type of airbag being replaced — that list is no longer accurate. For safety’s sake, we recommend that you visit NHTSA’s recall website and run a search using your car’s own vehicle identification number, or VIN. That’s the best way of telling whether your car is affected.