In the late 1990s, General Motors got an unexpected and enticing offer. A little-known Japanese supplier, Takata, had designed a much cheaper automotive air bag.
GM turned to its air bag supplier – the Swedish-American company Autoliv – and asked it to match the cheaper design or risk losing the automaker’s business, according to Linda Rink, who was a senior scientist at Autoliv assigned to the GM account at the time.
But when Autoliv’s scientists studied the Takata air bag, they found that it relied on a dangerously volatile compound in its inflater, a critical part that causes the air bag to expand.
“We just said, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’re not going to use it,’” said Robert Taylor, Autoliv’s head chemist until 2010.
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Today, that compound is at the heart of the largest automotive safety recall in history. At least 14 people have been killed and more than 100 have been injured by faulty inflaters made by Takata. More than 100 million of its air bags have been installed in cars in the United States by General Motors and 16 other automakers.
Details of GM’s decision-making process almost 20 years ago, which has not been reported previously, suggest that a quest for savings of just a few dollars per air bag compromised a critical safety device, resulting in passenger deaths. 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.
“General Motors told us they were going to buy Takata’s inflaters unless we could make a cheaper one,” Rink said. Her team was told that the Takata inflaters were as much as 30 percent cheaper per module, she added, a potential savings of several dollars per air bag. “That set off a big panic on how to compete.”
Tom Wilkinson, a spokesman for GM, which was reorganized as a new company after declaring bankruptcy in 2009, said the Takata discussions “occurred two decades ago between old GM and a supplier,” and therefore it was “not appropriate for us to comment.”
“We knew that GM was getting low-cost inflaters from others,” said Chris Hock, a former member of Taylor’s team who left Autoliv in April. “That was a dangerous path.”
Even with the record recall, deadly accidents and research critical of ammonium nitrate, Takata continues to manufacture air bags with the compound – and automakers continue to buy them. The air bags appear in the 2016 models of seven automakers, and they are also being installed in cars as replacement air bags for those being recalled.
Takata said in a statement that it had taken steps to protect the ammonium nitrate it uses against temperature changes, which along with moisture are the main factors contributing to its volatility. The manufacturer said it was also studying, along with safety regulators and some automakers, inflaters with a drying agent “to better understand and quantify their service life.”
‘It Turned It Into Shrapnel'
The new air bag came not a moment too soon for Takata.
The Japanese supplier had been making seat belts in the United States since the mid-1980s, but its air bag business, which it began in earnest in the 1990s, was in trouble.
A previous generation of air bags supplied to Nissan had the problem of deploying too forcefully. Those air bags were linked to at least 40 eye injuries in the 1990s.
Takata began experimenting with alternative propellants. But in 1997 its inflater plant in Moses Lake, Wash., was rocked by a series of explosions that destroyed equipment and greatly curtailed production, according to insurance claims made by the company at the time.
After the blast, Takata was forced to buy inflaters from competitors and airlift them to automakers across the country. The company’s U.S. business struggled “to maintain corporate viability,” Takata said in a lawsuit filed against its insurer.
It was against that difficult backdrop that Takata embraced the cheaper new compound, ammonium nitrate, in its air bag inflaters, according to former employees. Mark Lillie, who had worked as an engineer at Takata, told The New York Times in 2014 that considerations over cost spurred the supplier to use the compound, despite the dangers associated with it. Lillie raised concerns over the risks in the late 1990s, but his warnings went unheeded.
Around the same time, the team at Autoliv was asked to study the Takata design. Taylor, the head Autoliv chemist, said his team immediately recognized the risks posed by the ammonium nitrate.
“We tore the Takata air bags apart, analyzed all the fuel, identified all the ingredients,” he said. The takeaway, he said, was that when the air bag was detonated, “the gas is generated so fast, it blows the inflater to bits.”
Hock, the former member of Taylor’s team, said he recalled carrying out testing on a mock ammonium nitrate inflater that produced explosive results that left his team shaken.
“When we lit it off, it totally destroyed the fixture,” he said. “It turned it into shrapnel.”
Autoliv’s concerns were backed by well-known research. Widely available studies going back decades warned of the tricky properties of ammonium nitrate, which can break down when exposed to moisture or temperature changes – vital factors, federal regulators said, with the defective Takata air bags.
“Some of the worst industrial accidents at the worldwide level involve ammonium nitrate,” Luigi T. De Luca, an Italian academic and a leading expert in solid propellant rockets, said in an email.
The dangers associated with ammonium nitrate made it difficult at times for Takata to find a supplier. An internal memo prepared in March 2000 by the Mississippi Chemical Corporation, an agricultural fertilizer supplier, states that early talks to supply Takata with ammonium nitrate fell apart over liability issues. A handwritten note on the memo notes: “Send letter informing them about explosion hazard.”
Air bag design and performance specifications are set by a consortium of automakers, with little involvement by safety regulators. In congressional testimony, Takata has insisted that specifications set by the automakers did not anticipate the problems caused by exposure to heat and humidity over many years.
But a review of the consortium’s design and performance specifications by The Times shows the automotive industry had raised concerns about the risks of ammonium nitrate more than a decade ago.
A 2004 update to its specifications singled out ammonium nitrate inflaters and required them to “undergo added stability evaluation.”
The specifications from the consortium, known as the United States Council on Automotive Research, show a clear understanding of the damaging effects of moisture and temperature on air bag explosives. Inflaters must be evaluated for their “resistance to temperature aging in an environment of high humidity,” the specifications said.
The problem, it appears, is that no one enforced the specifications.
The update in the specifications was issued four years before Honda, the automaker most affected by the defective air bags, started issuing recalls in 2008. It was not until 2013 that other automakers started recalling cars with the air bags. Today, 64 million of the defective air bags have been subject to the recall.
But workers at the La Grange factory would take the defective inflaters and test them repeatedly, to deplete the helium. With no helium left inside, the inflaters would pass the test, according to the engineer. The workers would then give the defective inflaters new bar code identifiers, so the repeated testing could not be tracked.
The engineer said he questioned his Takata bosses in 2001 about manipulating the tests, but was told “not to come back to any more meetings.” He left the company later that year.