The auto industry has hired a Virginia rocket science company to investigate and find out why some air bags explode with too much force. Ten automakers whose vehicles have been recalled because of problems with Takata Corp. air bags stated that they have jointly hired Orbital ATK to come up with an answer. The suburban Washington, D.C., company makes rocket propulsion systems, small arms ammunition, warhead fuses and missile controls.
The companies also named David Kelly, a former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as project manager for the investigation. As we have repeatedly reported, air bags inflators made by Takata of Japan can explode with too much force, sending shrapnel into car and truck cabins. At least six people have been killed and 64 injured due to the problems. So far, about 17 million cars and trucks have been recalled in the U.S. and 22 million worldwide to replace the inflators, but Takata has been unable to pinpoint the cause. That’s hard to comprehend since the company has known about the problems since at least 2004.
A brief review of the problem might be helpful. Takata uses ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that quickly inflates its air bags. The chemical can burn faster than designed if exposed to prolonged airborne moisture. That can cause it to blow apart a metal canister meant to contain the explosion. Assuming that is the sole cause, it is necessary to find out just how much humidity and time it takes to cause the problem. At this juncture, those two factors are unknown. Orbital ATK has the ability to quickly simulate the impact of humidity on the propellant over long periods of time, which is key to finding out the cause. The company will test air bag inflators that were taken from cars that have been repaired under recalls.
Orbital ATK says it will share data with Takata and government safety investigators. Once a cause is found, the company will disclose it to all stakeholders and the public. The automakers, led by Toyota, include BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru. Reportedly, they hired Orbital to speed up the investigation. In a statement, Takata said it welcomes Orbital and Kelly and will work with them and NHTSA on the investigation. The company said it has been in contact with automakers and will support their investigation by sharing results of its own testing. Takata is being fined $14,000 per day by NHTSA for allegedly failing to cooperate in the government’s probe of the problem. Takata denies that charge. Fines began Feb. 20 and at press time had grown to $98,000 so far.
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