Federal regulators are taking over efforts to recall 19 million U.S. vehicles and replace 23 million potentially faulty airbag inflators. But they are going beyond that.
Regulators also set a deadline for halting the use of ammonium nitrate as an airbag propellant.
Kudos to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for finally stating the obvious: Ammonium nitrate is the wrong propellant for airbags.
NHTSA's consent order to Takata Corp. imposed a civil penalty of at least $70 million. And the order requires Takata to phase out manufacturing of inflators that use ammonium nitrate, which the regulator believes is "a factor in explosive ruptures that have caused seven deaths and nearly 100 injuries in the United States."
Further, NHTSA's consent order schedules future recalls of "all Takata ammonium nitrate inflators now on the roads unless the company can prove they are safe."
Ammonium nitrate is a familiar chemical, widely used in fertilizers. Combined with fuel oil, it makes the most common mining explosive.
But Takata is the only major supplier to use ammonium nitrate as its primary airbag inflator propellant. Other airbag manufacturers use propellants they say are more stable. Chemical experts say ammonium nitrate, if exposed to moisture, can degrade in ways that alter its explosive power.
Takata has known some of its airbags deployed with such force that parts of metal housing sprayed like shrapnel into drivers or passengers. For years, Takata has insisted it cannot find a root cause for the defects.
NHTSA dispenses with Takata's stance, finding that "Takata provided NHTSA with selective, incomplete or inaccurate data" since 2009 and "also provided its customers with selective, incomplete or inaccurate data."
Auto safety devices that require carefully calibrated explosions should not use a propellant that degrades when exposed to moisture. NHTSA was correct to decide to get ammonium nitrate out of autos.
Now, it must execute its accelerated recall schedule. Automakers and suppliers should get on board.