WASHINGTON -- Takata Corp.’s consent order with U.S. regulators contains an ultimatum whose consequences could be even more damaging than the $200 million penalty imposed on the company Tuesday: Prove that ammonium nitrate is a safe propellant for airbag inflators, or face a recall of every inflator it has ever made with the chemical.
Under the pact with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Takata has until the end of 2019 to demonstrate the long-term safety of inflators that use ammonium nitrate-based propellant. If it can’t, all Takata ammonium nitrate inflators, including those not currently under recall, would have to be replaced with a different type, U.S. officials said.
Such a move could add millions of vehicles -- perhaps tens of millions -- to the Takata recalls and put years of additional strain on automakers and suppliers already scrambling to get the 19 million U.S. vehicles recalled for Takata airbags fixed.
While Takata, regulators and automakers continue their search for a root cause, the terms of the government’s order shows heightened suspicion of ammonium nitrate propellant as a key factor in the explosions that cause defective Takata inflators to break apart during an airbag deployment and spray occupants with shrapnel. The defect is linked to 8 deaths and about 100 injuries.
“We believe this chemical is a factor in these ruptures, and the combination of Takata’s delays and denials, plus unexplained issues with ammonium nitrate inflators not already under recall leave us without confidence in these products going forward,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said during a press conference Tuesday. “We are ordering Takata to phase out production of new inflators using ammonium nitrate and unless new evidence emerges, the company will have to recall all of its ammonium nitrate inflators.”
Takata is the only major airbag supplier that uses ammonium nitrate inflators. In June, the company acknowledged that the chemical has been a factor in the known ruptures to date. But it has stuck to its position that the compound is safe for use in inflators when properly manufactured.
Takata has continued to supply airbag inflators with ammonium nitrate propellant as replacement parts for recalled vehicles and on some new cars rolling off assembly lines.
Tuesday’s consent order compels Takata to demonstrate the safety of ammonium nitrate over the life of a vehicle, and provides regulators a hair-trigger mechanism to force Takata to recall all of its inflators that use the chemical.
It allows NHTSA to declare any ammonium nitrate inflator type to be defective and order a recall under a number of circumstances, including reports of additional ruptures occurring in the field, test results showing more recalls are warranted, or “other appropriate evidence.”
“We’re putting the burden on Takata to show that ammonium nitrate is safe,” Foxx said. “Heretofore, the presumption I think has been that it is, and we have enough suspicion about this substance to believe that there is risk to consumers, and until they can prove that it’s safe, we will not see ammonium nitrate in these airbags in the future.”
All of the 19 million U.S. vehicles covered by the current Takata recalls have inflators that use ammonium nitrate-based propellant.
In a statement, Takata said the consent decree “marks a pivot point for Takata by setting out an orderly transition to the next generation of inflators.”