Since the first recall of 4,000 Takata airbags in 2008, there has been widespread condemnation of the Japanese parts maker. 70 million vehicles in the United States and another 100 million worldwide have since been added to that initial recall list, making it the most expansive and expensive recall in history. But new investigations by the New York Times now allege that automakers are at the crux of the crisis as they knowingly embraced the uncertain but happily inexpensive airbag technology nearly 20 years ago.
Back in the 1990s, General Motors was having a rough decade. The decade’s earlier recession, first Gulf War, and bad press from the company’s Flint layoffs and subsequent outsourcing had left the automaker saddled with debt and a poor reputation. The company was eager for cost-cutting measures and found some relief in an offer by the little-known Takata for a significantly cheaper automotive airbag.
GM immediately turned to its current airbag supplier — Swedish-American company Autoliv — and put forth the ultimatum of either matching its design or losing a portion of their business. Senior scientists at Autoliv studied the Takata airbags, but when they discovered that it relied on a risky and potentially dangerous volatile compound as an inflator, they refused to make the switch. Former Autoliv scientists maintain that their company’s officials alerted GM and other automakers of the dangers.
It’s this cheaper compound, ammonium nitrate, that has led to the deaths of at least 14 people and over 100 other cases of severe injuries. Since that meeting between Takata and GM officials, a meeting that is only now being made public, over 100 million Takata airbags have been installed in cars being sold in the United States by 17 automakers, including GM.
As NYT journalist Hiroko Tabuchi eloquently summarizes in the article, “The findings also indicate that automakers played a far more active role in the prelude to the crisis: Rather than being the victims of Takata’s missteps, automakers pressed their suppliers to put cost before all else.”
Despite such a concerning history, GM continues to be everything but forthright and responsive with the Takata airbag crisis. Authorities are currently requesting for U.S. safety regulators to delay by a year the mandatory recall of nearly one million of its vehicles outfitted with Takata-manufactured airbags. The automaker claims that its tests have shown these newer inflators to be “not currently at risk of rupture.”
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Information source: NY Times, 26 Aug 2016