While the world may be burned out on hearing about automotive recalls after General Motors' acknowledged their ignition switch defect and then recalled just about every car they've made in the last 17 years, drivers now face a safety problem that is far more widespread and possibly even more dangerous.
This latest problem is the recall of more than 14 million cars with airbags made by the Japanese parts supplier company Takata, airbags with the potential to explode and injure or even kill vehicle occupants.
The defective airbags affect more than just one automaker — they went into a variety of Japanese, American and German-made cars over a number of years.
What's somewhat odd about the Takata case is that, rather than something that happened all at once like GM's recalls, this been going on for quite some time now. Recalls of Takata airbags have been happening off and on for years. Last April, 3.6 million Hondas, BMWs, Nissans and other cars were recalled globally over the problem; about 6.5 million cars were recalled in the five years prior.
The problem has been getting more and more attention lately, thanks in part to a New York Times investigation last week that revealed how Takata and Honda deemed the problem "an anomaly" and didn't start recalling cars until 2008 despite being aware of problems for years before that. (Sound familiar?)
What cars are affected? A lot of cars. Curiously, it's been hard to locate a centralized list of all vehicles equipped with the potentially faulty airbags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Safer Car website has a list of some, and this database from International Business Times (which was current as of August) has more.
In general, some of the cars affected include mid-2000s BMW 3-Series models; some mid-2000s Ford Mustangs and Rangers; mid-2000s Subaru Bajas, Legacies and Imprezas; early 2000s Toyota Tundras, Corollas and Sequoias; early 2000s Nissan Maximas, Sentras and Pathfinders, as well as various Infinitis; early 2000s Mazda6s and RX-8s; and nearly every model Honda and Acura made in the 2000s, including Accords, Civics, CR-Vs, and MDXs.
Honda is Takata's biggest customer, and they have been far and away the most impacted by this recall. The airbag detonations are ongoing, with one happening as recently as June.
If you think your car might be involved, go here to check your VIN.
What's the problem with the airbags, exactly? It has to do with the explosive devices in the metal airbag inflater. In the faulty airbags, those devices can burn more aggressively than they should, causing the inflater to burst and sending pieces of metal flying through the airbag fabric. This could potentially maim or kill the car's occupant.
Has anyone been injured or killed? Yes, they have. The Times report says that based on complaints sent to regulators, 139 injuries have occurred as a result of the airbag explosions, and at least two people were killed in Hondas alone after shrapnel tore through their bodies following an airbag deployment.
One was 18-year-old Ashley Parham, who in 2009 bumped another car in a parking lot in her 2001 Accord, which caused the airbag to unnecessarily deploy and fire shrapnel into her neck. She bled to death, investigators say. The other was 33-year-old Gurjit Rathore, whose 2001 Accord hit a mail truck six months after Parham's death, causing a similar airbag detonation with shrapnel. Rathore bled to death in front of her children.
Why are the Takata airbags the ones with this problem? The airbags in question were developed in the late 1990s in an attempt to reduce the toxic fumes that plagued early airbags. But as Reuters reported back in January, Takata had some quality issues with them early on:
Takata has acknowledged to U.S. safety regulators that it improperly stored chemicals and botched the manufacture of the explosive propellants used to inflate airbags. It also has conceded to Reuters that, in at least one case, it kept inadequate quality-control records, which meant that hundreds of thousands of cars had to be recalled to find what might have been only a small number of faulty airbags, a decade after they were made.
Takata has said they have now resolved these quality issues.
Doesn't geography have something to do with the defect? At the moment, the recalls are mostly isolated to certain geographic areas — NHTSA calls it "limited regional actions" for vehicles in Florida and Puerto Rico.
Takata says they have been studying whether vehicles in especially humid areas are more at risk. However, as Forbes reported, shrapnel deployments have also occurred in places like Oklahoma and Los Angeles. Honda has since expanded their recall to more regions.
How long have Takata and the automakers known about this? The first reported airbag shrapnel deployment happened in 2004. Honda settled several injury claims in court but did not issue a recall until 2008, and then only for about 4,000 Civics and Accords. They did tell Takata of their airbag problems in 2007.
Honda has expanded their recall continuously since then, including a recall of nearly 440,000 cars in 2010 — but without acknowledging previous deaths or injuries. BMW pressed Takata in 2010 on why their airbags supposedly weren't affected as the supplier claimed, only for Takata to backtrack and say BMW's airbags were at risk.
Clearly, this a problem known for years, but Takata and Honda's reluctance to make it public probably delayed other automakers from issuing their own recalls.
Where was NHTSA in all this? Great question! Where was America's auto safety regulator when all this was going on? As with the GM recall crisis, they say they kind of knew about it, but not enough to order the automakers to do a full recall. They are investigating now whether Honda should have acted sooner, something that could result in fines or other penalties.
Again from the Times:
By law, automakers are required to inform federal regulators of a defect within five business days, even if an exact cause cannot be determined. Honda filed a standard report on the initial air bag injury in 2004, and followed up with similar filings on the incidents in 2007. The form requires automakers to list the component — in this case, an air bag — that was responsible for an injury, but it does not allow for elaboration about the circumstances, like a rupture.
In none of those four instances of ruptured air bags, The Times found, did Honda go beyond the standard form and separately alert safety regulators to the most critical detail: that the air bags posed an explosion risk.
Nor did federal regulators inquire about the incidents when the forms were filed by Honda.
I bet they're wishing they had now, though.
Why isn't everyone pissed off like they were at GM? I'm really not sure. This recall is almost five times larger than GM's ignition switch recall. Maybe it's because the blame can't be pinned on a single automaker, or maybe it's because it doesn't affect car companies we've come to expect this from. It's a serious safety issue, but it hasn't gained a ton of traction in news coverage, though that could change.
What could happen to Takata here? They've taken some big hits from this and will continue to do so, but experts doubt it will put them out of business. Bloomberg reported last month that Takata projects a $235 million loss as a result of the recalls, and they have replaced president Shigehisa Takada, the grandson of the company's founder, with a Swiss national named Stefan Stocker. Takada remains CEO and chairman.
What should I do if I think my car is affected? As with other recalls, this is done by registrations and VIN numbers. You should get a notice in the mail if your car is one of the vehicles affected by the recall. Once that happens, you should get the vehicle serviced at a dealer, which happens free of charge.
Do you have any of the vehicles included in this recall, and if so, have you gotten a notice yet?