Just days after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would fine Takata Corp. for supplying faulty airbag inflators to more than 10 automakers, Toyota and Nissan said they will drop inflators that use ammonium nitrate in their future products.
Related: More on the Takata Airbag Recall
Nissan and Toyota followed Honda, which announced Nov. 3 that it would drop Takata as a supplier for any frontal airbag inflators. Other automakers are reportedly considering similar moves. But Nissan and Toyota cautioned that their announcements concern the chemical propellant, not the supplier: Toyota even said it would consider Takata inflators with another propellant “as long as we can confirm their safety and durability.”
Airbags involve a lot more than just the inflators, and swearing off certain inflators in future vehicles doesn’t remove them from current cars. Amid the flight from ammonium nitrate airbag inflators in future products, concern shifts to the current cars that still have it.
NHTSA wants to ban all ammonium nitrate inflators, a chemical that only Takata uses as the primary inflator propellant, spokesman Gordon Trowbridge told Cars.com. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told reporters on Nov. 3 that such a ban could impact “potentially millions more cars.”
Current Airbags Still Use Ammonium Nitrate
Takata did not comment on how many inflators going into new cars use ammonium nitrate. A source familiar with the company who wished to remain anonymous told Cars.com that although the supplier has switched to another propellant, guanidine nitrate, in some of its European inflators, all of Takata’s inflators in current U.S. vehicles still use ammonium nitrate.
Cars.com reached out to every automaker involved in the recall crisis to see which cars have ammonium nitrate inflators. Most automakers would not discuss their contracts with the supplier, but three automakers did.
Honda said three existing models — the 2016 Honda CR-V, 2016 Acura RDX and 2016 Acura RLX — have Takata inflators. The CR-V has one on the driver’s-side airbag, while both Acura models have Takata passenger-side inflators.
Mitsubishi said the 2016 i-MiEV electric hatchback has a Takata inflator on the passenger side. A third automaker, Subaru, initially said no current cars have Takata inflators, but Cars.com later learned from the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a public-policy group, that at least one Subaru model had a Takata airbag. On Feb. 24, 2016, Subaru spokesman Dominick Infante said he had incorrect information at the time of Cars.com’s original report. Both the Outback and Legacy have Takata airbags on the passenger side, Infante said.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles spokesman Eric Mayne said the automaker’s new cars “are not equipped with components subject to the current Takata campaigns,” but he wouldn’t specify which new cars have Takata inflators apart from the recall. BMW, GM, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota declined to discuss which current cars have Takata inflators. Ford did not respond to our request at all.
DOT’s Foxx told reporters on Nov. 3 that Takata would eventually have to recall every single car with an ammonium nitrate inflator, barring future evidence that the chemical is safe. That means those Honda, Acura and Mitsubishi vehicles will likely need a replacement inflator down the road.
More on Ammonium Nitrate
Regulators have tied ammonium nitrate to airbag explosions in older cars that spent years in regions of high absolute humidity. In the U.S., seven deaths and 98 injuries have been linked to the crisis.
In a Nov. 3 company statement, Takata said it would “implement a series of actions, including the phasing out of the manufacture and sale of non-desiccated Phase Stabilized Ammonium Nitrate (PSAN) Takata inflators by the end of 2018. Also, it will not enter into any new contracts to provide PSAN inflators.”
Non-desiccated refers to desiccant, a chemical that combats the effects of moisture in the inflators. NHTSA’s timetable considers the addition of desiccant into “some” Takata inflators, NHTSA’s Trowbridge told Cars.com.
Reuters reported in May that desiccant can extend the life of an inflator considerably, and our source familiar with Takata said there’s “never been a reported issue of a Takata airbag that’s desiccated.”
Takata “can continue to manufacture and sell airbag inflators that are desiccated under current contracts,” the source said. “The replacement kits and the majority of new inflators are all desiccated,” but not every single new inflator has the additive.
NHTSA believes non-desiccated airbags present the highest risk, but the agency still requires “the eventual recall of all Takata inflators using ammonium nitrate, whether desiccated or not,” Trowbridge said. The agency’s consent order requires Takata to phase out all ammonium nitrate inflators, desiccated or not, by the end of 2018.
Replacement airbags under the current recall appear to be declining in ammonium-nitrate usage. Sixty-two percent of the replacement inflators under recall use different chemicals from other suppliers, the source said, and that portion is expected to increase to 80 percent by January.
Still, some of the replacements will need a second fix down the road. In an Oct. 22 conference, NHTSA said many replacement airbags have interim remedies — essentially replacement ammonium nitrate airbags that reset the clock on humidity exposure but will need a permanent replacement down the road. The agency strongly advises that consumers get a permanent replacement when it becomes available, but officials didn’t provide a total number of interim inflators.
That much is becoming a little bit more clear.
Mayne said about 31,500 FCA cars have interim replacements. BMW said about 30,000 cars have the temporary inflators. That’s about 7 percent of BMW inflators and less than 1 percent of FCA inflators under Takata recall, according to the totals provided by each automaker.
Mitsubishi said zero cars have them. Honda spokesman Chris Martin didn’t give a total number but said certain owners who received replacement inflators before September 2014 and haven’t had a subsequent replacement since then may still require a new, permanent inflator.
Martin said Honda, which has a huge chunk of Takata recalls, has notified owners that they need a second repair. Anyone who received a replacement inflator after September 2014, whether it was a first or second replacement, received a permanent — not interim — fix, he said.
Editor’s note: Cars.com updated this article on Feb. 25, 2016, when Subaru corrected its information on which cars have Takata airbags.