It all comes down to the cheap explosive, one that even Takata itself reportedly knew was going to get people killed.
The scale of the Takata airbag recall is vast; bigger than anyone knows for sure, bigger than Takata would like anyone to find out. Some 100 million vehicles worldwide may need a recall, as Bloomberg Businessweek estimates today in their new and comprehensive history of Takata’s unprecedented fuckup.
Reading the report Sixty Million Car Bombs: Inside Takata’s Air Bag Crisis, you realize that “fuckup” isn’t the right word. Takata made a very clear decision to switch from expensive, stabile propellants in their airbags to cheap, volatile propellants instead. They reportedly faked and fudged data to try to back up their decision, and they even ignored the advice of their own engineers and managers. Takata was cognizant of what they were getting into right from the very start, as Bloomberg’s report explains, and their rationale was as clear as it was tragic.
As the article notes, airbags deploy using small capsules of explosives (the nicer name the industry uses is “propellant”) to fill the bag. They work rapidly, but not too rapidly, lest they blow up out of control. That would send shards of metal at the occupants, which is exactly what went wrong at Takata and has killed 13 people so far, and injured 100 more.
The key to making a safe airbag is to use propellants that are as stable as possible, and Takata’s descent into greed, death, and failure begins with their choice to move from an expensive and rare but stable propellant to the cheap and common but volatile explosive ammonium nitrate. The problem is that these propellants are proprietary, and that the companies must spend money to develop them themselves, and all of the research on their safety (or lack thereof) resides within the company itself.
The greed, desperation, and urgency of the company is what did the system in, as Bloomberg explains:
It’s best to make explosives in a place with low humidity. Takata started making air bag inflators in the U.S. in 1991, at a facility in Moses Lake, Wash. It’s near an old U.S. Air Force base, east of the Cascade Range, where the high-plains air is dry. Takata set up a joint venture with a company called Rocket Research, and when it looked like the business would succeed, it bought the other 50 percent, says Mark Lillie, who was hired as a propellant engineer in 1994 and has spoken out about his experiences at the company. “They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the facility,” he says. “Takata was working hard to catch up and grab market share by being technologically sophisticated. We were moving so fast. It was terrifying, but exciting.”
Takata’s original propellant was based on a common chemical, sodium azide, derived from a formula the military had developed for launching torpedoes and missiles. Sodium azide was difficult to handle in the factory, though—prone to exploding when exposed to air, light, or jostling. When inhaled, it was toxic, and after the air bags deployed, they left a residue inside cars. Most companies that used it were looking for an alternative.
Takata’s second-generation propellant, introduced in 1996, was based on a chemical called tetrazole, which was safer than sodium azide and just as effective. Researchers code-named the formula 3110, and the company marketed it as Envirosure. Takata was the first to use tetrazole, and the chemical helped the company bring in Ford and General Motors, expanding its share of the North American market to 10 percent. But the supply of high-quality tetrazole was limited and costly. “Takata made promises to customers for volumes that could not be supported by the existing pipeline for the raw materials,” Lillie says. “The culture was: We will make a commitment to the customer, and then we will work like the dickens to make it happen somehow.”
Takata’s research brought them to ammonium nitrate, the same explosive in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was volatile, and would get extremely so if ever exposed to humidity, which is why every other company that looked into it, rejected it. But it’s ten times cheaper than tetrazole.
No wonder then, that the company steamrolled every piece of opposition against it, even from within the company. Bloomberg notes that conference papers from this period in the late ‘90s say that it’s too dangerous to use, echoed by engineers within Takata. One such engineer, Mark Lillie, gave testimony against Takata in court and went on the record with Bloomberg:
“At the meeting, I literally said that if we go forward with this, somebody will be killed,” he adds in an interview, echoing his testimony. After the design review, Lillie says he met separately with the engineer who served as the liaison with Takata headquarters in Tokyo. “What I gathered from the conversation was, ‘Yes, I’ll pass on your concerns, but don’t expect it to do any good, because the decision has already been made.’ ” The head of ASL was Paresh Khandhadia, who had a master’s in chemical engineering and “was a very smooth operator,” Lillie says. “Tokyo put a tremendous amount of stock in his credentials.” Neither Khandhadia, who left Takata in 2015, nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment. During a deposition last year, Khandhadia was nearly silent, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to testify against himself.
Things went downhill from there. Takata started assembling these airbags with this ammonium nitrate at a new plant in Mexico, where workers had less experience and got paid less. The plant had all kinds of assembly issues.
Basically, every bad decision Takata could have made, they did. The factory even exploded back in 2006! And at every turn, people within the company knew that things were going wrong. Here’s an email sent to the workers of that factory from the plant manager, five years after the explosion:
Guillermo Apud, a supervisor at the plant, had to scold employees in a May 2011 e-mail about their sloppy, and potentially dangerous, work habits. He had noticed that they were “reworking,” trying to fix defective parts on the inflator assembly line rather than removing them to be examined later. “Rework on the line is PROHIBITED!!! We can’t have leaders/materials/people/operators REWORKING material left and right without ANY control, this is why we have defect upon defect. We need to change NOW!”
These defects and poorly-made assemblies let humidity get into the explosive. That degraded the ammonium nitrate over the years, and that’s what came the wave of deaths, trials, hearings, and recalls. That’s the three-sided failure that the media has understood for a few months. Takata itself knew all of this years before:
In 2006 a Takata engineering manager sent an e-mail to a colleague that suggests data about potential problems with product tests were being hidden or ignored: “It is yet another mess-o-shit we will be handed with no real fix possible. The plant should have been screaming bloody murder long ago.” A Takata spokesman reiterates that such data integrity problems are inexcusable and won’t be tolerated, but that they have nothing to do with the root cause of the air bag ruptures.
Takata changed their formula in 2008, adding a drying agent to soak up any moisture that might seep into the ammonium nitrate, but they refused to acknowledge that they fundamentally set themselves up for disaster in choosing ammonium nitrate, going with the cheaper and more dangerous option for their airbags.
Congress is making sure that Takata pays its price for it, and it looks like this could well be the undoing of the company altogether. What’s worrying, as this Bloomberg report notes, is that it’s very difficult for car companies to get a hold of the millions and millions of car owners who need their airbags recalled. Since ammonium nitrate takes years to degrade into its dangerous state, most of these cars are on their second or third owners. Used car dealers aren’t required by law to notify their buyers that there’s a recall pending. Honda, the carmaker that worked the most closely with Takata as a supplier, has put alerts up on Facebook, Twitter, in sports stadiums and even in person. The carmaker has gone as far as to hire private detectives to track down unknown owners, Bloomberg notes.
Read the full report right here. It will terrify you, it will infuriate you, and hopefully it will teach us all how to keep this from happening again.