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The Biggest Recall In Automotive History Might Finally Be Coming To A Close

Gif: NHTSA

The first Takata recall for defective airbags began back in 2001, sparking a series of cascading recalls that eventually touched tens of millions of cars and bankrupted the company. Now, a new recall of around 10 million airbags to replace airbags that had already been replaced in previous recalls has been issued, though the end of the saga might finally be in sight.

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Vehicles made by almost every automaker were caught up in recalls over the years because of airbags that could inflate too quickly and explode. At least two dozen deaths have been linked to the airbags, in addition to hundreds of injuries. Here’s more from Bloomberg:

The parts covered by the latest recall were installed in earlier repairs despite sharing the same basic flaw as the components they were replacing: explosive propellant that can become unstable in hot, humid climates and explode in a crash, spraying vehicle occupants with metal shards. At least 24 deaths and about 300 injuries worldwide have been linked to the lethal airbag defect.

The components were used because, being newly made, they were seen as a safer alternative to older inflators exposed to years of heat and humidity. The supplier told NHTSA it was unaware of any examples of the replacement parts exploding after being installed in a vehicle, according to filings with the agency.

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It took Takata years to develop an airbag that does not use ammonium nitrate, which can break down over time in hot and humid conditions and ignite too quickly, meaning that cars in the south and west have been targeted for recalls first.

These new recalls are the last ones in a series of recalls scheduled as part of Takata’s 2015 settlement with the U.S. government, but the Associated Press said there might still be recalls in the future if Takata can’t prove by the end of this year “that inflators using ammonium nitrate with a moisture absorbing chemical are safe.”

According to NHTSA, 34.6 million airbags have been fixed and nearly 13 million defective airbags remain to be fixed. Which is as good a reminder as any to check to see if your car has them. You can do so on NHTSA’s website here. And if you think you’ve already checked after the last time you heard about the Takata recalls it’s a good idea to check again as the recalls have come in a series of waves, depending on priority.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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DISCUSSION

It took Takata years to develop an airbag that does not use ammonium nitrate, which can break down over time in hot and humid conditions and ignite too quickly, meaning that cars in the south and west have been targeted for recalls first.

A correction on this, as I’ve been following this story for a long time. The problem was that Takata initially developed an airbag that used ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) propellant and did NOT include a desiccant, which is an additive that absorbs water to prevent it being absorbed by the propellant itself. NH4NO3 is cheap and easy to produce, but is pretty unstable - and airbags obviously need a very controlled inflation to work as intended. Takata said they had been able to make it work without the added cost of a desiccant, which clearly wasn’t true. When the NH4NO3-equipped airbags started to absorb water in hot and humid climates, they turned out to be incredibly dangerous.

The “new” replacement airbags still use NH4NO3, but have the desiccant they should have included in the first place. Problem was, Takata couldn’t produce millions of them all at the same time, especially because they were in the process of going bankrupt. So some of the oldest airbags that had spent years being heat-cycled in humid climates, and were thus the most at risk for becoming unstable, were replaced with newer versions of the same non-desiccant airbags. Since newer units hadn’t had time to degrade they were at least somewhat safer than the existing versions, until enough desiccant-equipped airbags could be made that they could be replaced again. But either way the new airbags still use ammonium nitrate.