Federal authorities are looking into potentially defective Takata airbag inflators, a government document shows. The investigation is looking at vehicles by the following automakers: Honda, Ford, Toyota, General Motors, Nissan, Subaru, Tesla, Ferrari, Mazda, Daimler, BMW, Chrysler, Porsche, Jaguar Land Rover and others.

Reuters reported Sunday that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an engineering analysis of the cars.

There are 30 million vehicles involved with model years ranging from 2001 to 2019, all using the potentially defective Takata airbag inflators. 

The concern is that Takata’s inflators can potentially degrade, become desiccated, in heat and humidity. In their degraded condition they can explode when activated, and the passengers can be injured and killed from the shrapnel. 

A summary of the full report is available on the NHTSA’s website.  

The Vehicles Involved

NHTSA did not comment. But the engineering document on the potentially defective airbags, seen by Reuters, says that although “no safety risk has been identified … further work is needed to evaluate the future risk of non-recalled desiccated inflators.” It also said that a full investigation “will require extensive information on Takata production processes and surveys of inflators in the field.” 

Safety questions for Takata inflators are not new. In 2016 it recalled more than 35 million airbag inflators. In total more than 67 million have been recalled.

At one level the issue is the chemistry of the propellants. Airbags of course are designed to press drivers/passengers backward, holding them safely in place during the potentially deadly moments of a collision. Takata’s inflator accomplished this with “Phase Stabilized Ammonium Nitrate (PSAN) propellants.” The PSAN is what degrades with time, heat, and humidity.

In January 2021, a defective Takata inflator ruptured in a collision involving a 2002 Honda Accord, killing the driver. Honda put out a statement in April, after working with the NHTSA on an investigation of that crash. It expressed its deepest sympathies with the family of the driver, and said that Honda “currently has sufficient supplies of replacement inflators to complete the free repairs for all recalled Honda and Acura models in the United States, and we urge all owners of affected vehicles to seek repair as soon as possible.”

Volkswagen has agreed to pay a $42 million settlement covering 1.35 million vehicles that have been fitted with the faulty inflators, including rental cars and a range of out-of pocket costs (childcare and lost wages) that VW owners might have incurred in order to get their vehicles fixed.

VW models affected include the Passat, the Beetle, the Audi TT, and the Audi R8. 

The Death of Takata

Fortunately, no one is buying any new airbag inflators from Takata, because the company is out of business. Due to the earlier rounds of scandal and liability over its inflators, in June 25, 2017, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States, simultaneous with a bankruptcy filing in Japan. 

The vehicles now on the road with Takata’s products, and subject to NHTSA analysis and inspection are the defunct company’s legacy.

Many of its assets, in essence its factories, were sold to a competitor, Key Safety Systems. None of the legal liabilities for the deadly airbags passed to Key Safety with that deal.

During bankruptcy proceedings Takata used the money from the sale to settle legal claims and pay down debts. A small remnant did emerge from bankruptcy, but it exists chiefly to deal with the replacement of recalled inflators.   

As the example of Takata’s own demise indicates, liabilities from a dangerously defective airbag system can be devastating from the company.

As the Volkswagen settlement likewise indicates, automakers understand that the demise of Takata does nothing to get them off the hook, and they are working to get ahead of the matter and contain their own liabilities.