Cars with potentially deadly Takata air bags are still being made and sold
At least four automakers continue to sell new vehicles equipped with faulty air bag inflators from Takata Corp., which has become embroiled in the largest automotive recall in history, according to a Senate report.
The carmakers – Toyota, Vokswagen, Fiat Chrysler and Mitsubishi – are selling some vehicles from the 2016 and 2017 model years that include inflators that have already been linked to at least 11 deaths around the world, according to the report released Wednesday.
“Consumers are buying new cars and not realizing they’re going to be recalled,” the report’s author, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), said in a statement. “These cars shouldn’t be sold until they’re fixed.”
The roll-out of new cars with faulty air bags will prolong what is already a complex recall involving as many as 69 million inflators in the U.S. That automakers are continuing to produce vehicles equipped with the problematic inflators, experts said, reflects an industry that has been driven to make a difficult choice: stop making cars altogether until overtaxed air bag makers can produce safer inflators, or install faulty air bags fully knowing they will be recalled at a later date.
So far, all automakers have chosen the latter.
The problem stems from a dearth of supply in the air bag industry, which has faced years of consolidation as carmakers grew around the world.
The industry will have to hustle for years before it can manufacture enough parts to fulfill the millions of existing recalls.
Takata has even reached out to rival companies, including Autoliv and TRW, to help make replacement inflators.
“You have got only three or four global suppliers of air bags, and they have only got so much capacity,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “This shows the downside of having global supply chains where you have a standardized part which so many cars use.”
Takata came up with an air bag design that could be used in many different car models, said Scott Upham, chief executive of auto industry research firm Valient Market Research. That design uses ammonium nitrate, a chemical that inflates air bags upon impact.
But the chemical can degrade over time, especially when exposed to high humidity and fluctuating temperatures; in a crash, it can explode with too much force, rupturing the air bag and shooting shrapnel into drivers and passengers.
Consumers are buying new cars and not realizing they’re going to be recalled.
— Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
Upham believes Takata had a financial incentive to use ammonium nitrate – a compound that no other air bag makers use in their inflators. Ammonium nitrate is cheaper than comparable compounds, translating into Takata pricing its air bags at around $5 less than competitors, he said.
That’s big savings for carmakers when multiplied over tens of millions of vehicles.
Takata’s success – before the recall, the Japanese company controlled 22% of the global market for inflators – also means that any recalls are correspondingly huge, Upham said.
And it’s not just limited to brands offering low-priced cars – Mercedes-Benz and BMW have recalled vehicles as well.
“Carmakers have kind of shot themselves in the foot,” Upham said. “They wanted economies of scale and lower prices. That’s what they ended up getting.”
Brauer of Kelley Blue Book compared the problem to “a bad virus.”
One bad part “infects tens of millions of cars,” he said.
Experts said that automakers are betting they can sell new vehicles with the faulty inflators, as long as they issue recalls before they become dangerous.
These new cars can be sold legally. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that inflators can function for at least six years before becoming potentially unsafe. Buyers probably won’t need to bring them in for years, as older models require more urgent replacement.
Still, this sort of tricky calculus has longtime auto observers shaking their heads. The longevity of the inflators is dependent on humidity and temperature, they point out, but automakers obviously have no control over where cars go once they leave the lot.
“It’s truly bizarre,” said Brauer, who compared the faulty inflators to perishables like milk. “They have a date at which they go bad, but you don’t know when that is.”
Mitsubishi and Volkswagen disclosed the new models equipped with faulty Takata inflators, the report said. They include the 2016 and 2017 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, 2016 Volkswagen CC, 2016 Audi TT and 2017 Audi R8. Fiat Chrysler and Toyota did not provide the models of the new cars produced with the problematic inflators (although Toyota estimated it will produce about 175,000 vehicles that fall into this category).
The replacement inflators currently being produced still contain ammonium nitrate, but include desiccants that absorb moisture. That cures the humidity problem, but does not solve the risk of the chemical breaking down when faced with fluctuating temperatures.
Those kinds of wild swings on the thermometer can “wreak havoc” on the chemicals, turning them from solids into powder, Upham said.
“That’s what’s creating these huge pressure spikes,” he said, “which is basically flames shooting out of your air bag.”
3:34 p.m.: This article was entirely rewritten with staff reporting.