Have we fixed the Takata airbag problem? Takata truck blast in Texas renews concerns over airbag propellant.

three factors takata air bag

In the news recently, a truck carrying Takata replacement airbag parts to a warehouse in Eagle Pass, Texas on Aug. 22, exploded killing two people and injuring two others. This incident has once again opened up questions about the safety of the chemical compound at the center of the largest automotive recall in U.S. history.

The truck was carrying 14,000 cylinders of ammonium nitrate, which is the same propellant that the Takata airbags use and has been linked to the deadly airbag failures. Two New England Senators are requesting that the NTSB look into the explosion, although so far the NTSB has no plans to investigate, according to safety board spokesman Christopher O’Neil.

The explosion in Texas was so powerful, that it created a blast crater and blew out windows in houses as far as two miles away. The airbag explosion killed a woman in a nearby house.

Subsequent investigation of the explosion has proven that Takata was not improperly transporting the airbag parts, and the explosion further implies that there is instability in the continued use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant in all airbags. The Takata blast also raises serious questions about the safety of transporting ammonium nitrate by truck across the country as tens of millions recalled airbags are replaced.

Work still to be done

 Nearly 70 million Takata airbag inflators are scheduled for replacement between now and 2019, as part of the largest and most complex auto-safety recall in U.S. history. NHTSA studies have concluded that three factors: time, exposure to moisture and fluctuating high temperatures are the contributing risk factors in making ammonium nitrate unstable. In documented cases where the Takata-brand inflators have exploded with too much force, flying shrapnel has killed drivers.

What should be of concern to drivers is that when a vehicle owner takes their car in for a Takata airbag inflator replacement, the new replacement Takata inflators also rely on the same ammonium nitrate as the propellant. Other airbag manufacturers have avoided using Ammonium Nitrate due to safety questions.

Drying agent required

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that airbags with the compound were safe if they also used a drying agent. NHTSA has ordered Takata to phase out production of inflators without the drying agent by 2019.

The two New England Senators, Markey and Blumenthal, asked Takata to recall all vehicles with ammonium nitrate-based airbags in August 2015 and have repeatedly voiced their concern about the speed of the national airbag recall and replacement. Of even greater concern is the fact that Takata struggled to manufacture safe airbags before the massive recall, and lawmakers are concerned that now under the pressure of the recall, that even more corners could get cut by the company and further the safety risk to car owners with the replacement airbags.

Responding to the frustrations expressed by lawmakers to the piecemeal approach of recalling batches of affected vehicles here and there, federal safety regulators say that a complete all-at-once recall may actually do more harm than good.

Firstly, a sudden recall of all vehicles equipped with Takata airbags would strain the replacement part production process too much and would only create more uncertainty for consumers about whether or not their cars are safe to drive.

On the surface, a blanket recall of all inflators might sound like the right decision, but it would not serve public safety and could run the risk of exceeding NHTSA’s statutory authority.

The NHTSA’s current approach ensures that the highest risk vehicles — generally those that are older — are fixed first.

“Both field and test ruptures have been limited to older vehicles, the current recall list ensures that the oldest, and therefore highest-risk, inflators are addressed first.”

Lawmakers claim that by not recalling every single car with a Takata air bag, the recalls are insufficient and have left millions of potentially unsafe vehicles on the roads.

However, even if all the vehicles were recalled there simply aren’t enough replacement parts available right now to fix the issue.

About 74% of the replacement suppliers other than Takata make inflators for recalled cars, but for the remainder, there are no readily available non-Takata replacements.

For some vehicles, the only remedy currently available is a replacement with a newer version of the same bad part, a situation in which the replacement airbag could also degrade over time, become just as dangerous and need to be replaced again.

So have we solved the Takata airbag problem? It appears as though there is more work to be done.

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