In the late 1990s, General Motors switched airbag suppliers from the Swedish-American company Autoliv to the much cheaper Japanese supplier, Takata.
Prior to the switch, GM asked Autoliv to match the cheaper design, according to Linda Rink, who was a senior scientist at Autoliv assigned to the G.M. account at the time.
But when Autoliv’s scientists studied the Takata airbag, they found that it relied on a dangerously volatile compound in its inflater, a critical part that causes the airbag to expand.
“We just said, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’re not going to use it,’” said Robert Taylor, Autoliv’s head chemist until 2010.
Today, that compound is at the heart of the largest automotive safety recall in history. At least 14 people have been killed and more than 100 have been injured by faulty inflaters made by Takata. More than 100 million of its airbags have been installed in cars in the United States by General Motors and 16 other automakers.