Carmakers to enlist help in air bag probe

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington – A group of 10 major automakers are expected to announce as soon as this week the selection of a major firm with significant experience in aerospace and rocket propellants in the investigation into faulty Takata air bags, according to two people briefed on the matter.

The announcement is expected as air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. has briefed government investigators on its testing done in connection with a German engineering firm Takata hired to try to understand the root cause of a string of air bag explosions linked to six deaths and at least 64 injuries. Air bags can explode and propel metal fragments that can seriously injure or kill drivers and passengers.

Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Detroit’s Big Three automakers and five other automakers have recalled at least 14.6 million vehicles since 2013 with potentially defective air bags. The recalls have prompted serious concerns among federal regulators, in Congress and among the public. The automakers said earlier this month they were looking for a firm “with expertise in air bag inflator design and manufacturing using ammonium nitrate as a propellant.”

The automakers are also expected to confirm the hiring of former acting National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Kelly to oversee the auto industry effort to understand more about the growing number of vehicles recalled for defective air bags.

Takata briefed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this month on the tests along with its work with the Fraunhofer Institute, a German research organization that is the largest of its kind in Europe. The firm was retained in December. The company said it was “working with top scientists across the globe to evaluate our products and the recent inflator rupture events. The experts include scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany who specialize in propellants, inflators and air bag systems.”

Earlier this month, Honda said it confirmed a Takata air bag ruptured in a 2002 Honda Accord on Jan. 18 in a fatal crash that appears to be the sixth death linked to exploding air bags in Hondas. At least 64 injuries overall have been reported, including 52 in Hondas.

Takata plans to meet with major automakers next week. To date, there have been roughly 10,000 air bag tests. The Japanese parts supplier said Friday that the tests “supported our initial view that age and sustained exposure to heat and humidity is a common factor in the small number of inflators that have malfunctioned.”

The Toyota-led automakers group — which has had numerous meetings in the last two months — said in early December that its first goal is to select an independent, well-qualified expert to investigate technical issues.

Big questions remain: What is the root cause of the failures? Are replacement bags going to develop the same problems in five or 10 years? Is humidity’s effect on air bag propellant the key problem?

Trowbridge said Friday that a NHTSA team had visited Takata’s Auburn Hills facilities for technical discussions of the search for a root cause of the problem, and assessment of their testing facility and procedures.

Trowbridge said Takata had hired outside experts who are conducting tests and analyzing propellant chemistry. He said NHTSA has been given that data for analysis. “We are also in contact with the consortium of automakers that plans an independent testing effort to ensure that we have access to that data, and that we will also have access to data generated by individual carmakers as they need to perform tests,” he said.

Takata has also created an outside panel led by former top U.S. officials to review its practices.

Automakers also face the reality that it could take Takata years to make enough replacement parts. Honda expanded its recall by 2.6 million vehicles in December to at least 7.7 million since 2013. It has contracted with two other suppliers to build additional inflators, but they won’t be ready for six months.

Some automakers have expressed frustration with Takata, which has refused NHTSA’s demands to expand its driver side air bag recall nationwide. NHTSA on Friday began fining Takata $14,000 a day because it says the supplier is not cooperating fully. Takata denied it is not cooperating.