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.
“General Motors told us they were going to buy Takata’s inflaters unless we could make a cheaper one,” Ms. Rink said. Her team was told that the Takata inflaters were as much as 30 percent cheaper per module, she added, a potential savings of several dollars per airbag. “That set off a big panic on how to compete.”
Even with the record recall, deadly accidents and research critical of ammonium nitrate, Takata continues to manufacture airbags with the compound — and automakers continue to buy them. The airbags appear in the 2016 models of seven automakers, and they are also being installed in cars as replacement airbags for those being recalled.
A previous generation of airbags supplied to Nissan had the problem of deploying too forcefully and were linked to at least 40 eye injuries in the 1990s.
Takata began experimenting with alternative propellants but in the late ‘90s their inflater plant experienced a series of explosions that destroyed equipment and derailed production greatly. It was in front of this backdrop that Takata embraced the cheaper new compound, ammonium nitrate.
It was around this time the team at Autoliv was asked to study the Takata design.
“We tore the Takata airbags apart, analyzed all the fuel, identified all the ingredients,” he said. The takeaway, he said, was that when the airbag was detonated, “the gas is generated so fast, it blows the inflater to bits.”
Chris Hock, a former member of Mr. Taylor’s team, said he recalled carrying out testing on a mock ammonium nitrate inflater that produced explosive results that left his team shaken. “When we lit it off, it totally destroyed the fixture,” he said. “It turned it into shrapnel.”
These defective airbags made by Takata have been tied to 14 deaths and more than 100 injuries. The ensuing recall has turned out to be messy, confusing and frustrating for car owners.
Affected Automakers: BMW, Chrystler, Mazda, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Jaguar, Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, G.M. and Ferrari.
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Thanks to: The New York Times