CARS.COM — Despite more than 28 million Takata airbag inflators being recalled in the U.S., some automakers are still using them in new cars even though they’re known to degrade over time, which can lead to the airbags rupturing at excessive force, often turning the inflator casing into flying shrapnel. So far, 10 people in the U.S. have died as a result of these ruptured airbags and more than 100 people have been injured.
Here’s the problem: The chemical mixture (ammonium nitrate) that Takata airbags used for inflation grew more unstable over time as moisture crept in, especially in regions with high heat and humidity. To combat that, Takata added what’s known as a desiccant, or a moisture absorber. Now, the federal government has told Takata it must stop making all inflators with ammonium nitrate as a propellant by the end of 2018. While the jury is still out on whether Takata’s newer, desiccated inflators will eventually need to be recalled and replaced, some automakers are using these airbag inflators in new cars.
We reached out to manufacturers to find out which new cars are getting Takata’s non-desiccated airbag inflators and which are getting desiccated inflators. Here’s what we found:
Automakers Producing New Cars With Takata’s More Volatile Inflators
- Daimler: Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz and Smart, still uses Takata non-desiccated inflators in its 2016 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and 2016 and 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class coupe and convertible (but not the E-Class sedan), according to a U.S. Senate report from June. Whether these are in driver- or passenger-side frontal airbags was not specified; Cars.com asked two Mercedes-Benz spokespeople for comment, but we did not receive an answer.
- Ferrari: The Senate report said that Takata’s non-desiccated inflators are being used in the 2016 Ferrari FF, 2016-17 California T, 2016-17 488 GTB and 488 Spider, 2016-17 F12 and F12tdf, and 2017 GTC4Lusso. The report did not specify which frontal airbags and Ferrari didn’t respond to our questions.
- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles: FCA said in June it had phased out Takata’s non-desiccated inflators and that the 2016 Jeep Wrangler was “the last of the bunch.” (FCA’s U.S. brands include Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep and Ram.) It said no other 2016 vehicles have Takata’s non-desiccated ammonium nitrate inflators.
- Mitsubishi: Only the 2016 and 2017 Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric hatchbacks get a non-desiccated inflator and they’re in the passenger-side frontal airbag. Mitsubishi expects to have non-Takata inflators by early 2017, said spokesman Alex Fedorak; at that point, he said, the automaker will recall all existing 2016 and 2017 i-MiEVs and make no new ones with Takata inflators.
- Toyota: The 2016 Toyota 4Runner and 2016-2017 Lexus GX 460 still use non-desiccated Takata inflators in the passenger-side frontal airbags for both SUVs. They are the last Toyota, Lexus or Scion vehicles to use such inflators, said Toyota spokesman Victor Vanov. Toyota later clarified that it will eliminate the inflators for the 2017 model year in the 4Runner, but certain “early production” 2017 GX 460s will still have them.
- Volkswagen Group: The 2017 Audi R8, 2017 R8 Spyder and 2016 Audi TT have Takata non-desiccated inflators on the driver’s side, Audi spokesman Mark Clothier told Cars.com. (VW Group’s U.S. brands are Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen and several exotic marques.) A spokeswoman for Volkswagen brand said the 2016 CC sedan has a non-desiccated inflator in the driver-side airbag.
Automakers Without Takata’s Volatile Inflators in Their New Cars
Spokespeople for these manufacturers said that none of their new cars use Takata’s more volatile inflators:
- BMW Group (BMW, Mini, Rolls-Royce brands)
- Ford (Ford, Lincoln)
- Honda (Honda, Acura)
- Jaguar Land Rover
- Nissan (Nissan, Infiniti)
Automakers With Unclear Answers
- General Motors: A spokesman for GM, whose U.S. brands are Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC, said only that GM is selling no new vehicles with inflators subject to a Takata defect information report, the document that outlines the safety defect in a recall. It’s a vague answer since not all of Takata’s volatile inflators have been recalled yet because of the tiered nature of the recall (older cars with inflators most likely to have issues, such as those in hot and humid regions, are being recalled first). At least one other automaker said it has new cars with the problematic inflators but doesn’t expect them to come under a DIR until late 2018. Asked for more specifics, GM did not respond.
- Tesla: The May expansion of Takata recalls added Tesla vehicles already on the road. But a spokeswoman did not respond to multiple inquiries about whether any new Tesla models employ the more volatile Takata inflators.
- Porsche: Porsche, a brand under the Volkswagen Group, issued a statement to Cars.com that it uses Takata airbags but has “no knowledge of any instances in which Takata airbags installed in Porsche-brand vehicles were found to be defective.” Asked if this even meant Takata inflators — given the supplier makes a lot of other parts for airbag systems — a spokesman declined to elaborate.
Takata’s Less-Volatile Inflators Could Be Recalled, Too
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a consent order with Takata that requires the company to stop making airbag systems with any ammonium nitrate by the end of 2018. It also gives Takata until the end of 2019 to prove the safety of desiccated inflators — still being installed in many new cars — or they, too, will have to be recalled. That could bring the total cars included in Takata inflator recalls to more than 70 million.
“NHTSA will continue to monitor the data available on desiccated inflators, while proceeding with the recalls of the non-desiccated inflators that we know present safety risks,” the agency said in a statement to Cars.com.
What will the feds be looking at? Jimmie Oxley, a chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island, explained that ammonium nitrate qualifies chemically as a salt and, “by that definition, it’s pretty water-soluble,” she said. “It can get mushy.”
Enter desiccant, an absorbent chemical that Takata began adding several years ago, according to Automotive News. It can help protect the propellant from moisture.
“You know what desiccant is: If you buy a new pair of shoes, it’s that square in the bottom — that one-by-one-inch square that you pick up and throw away,” Oxley explained. “Sometimes it comes in a food product.”
How effective is it? While there is no hard data yet, there are no known rupture incidents to have come from desiccated inflators, regulators say.
“The root cause [of airbag ruptures] identified by the three independent research groups is limited to inflators without desiccant,” NHTSA said, referring to exposure to heat and humidity over time. “To date, there has been no known rupture of a desiccated inflator due to propellant degradation.”
Still, Oxley notes that desiccant won’t block moisture forever. She likened it to using rice grains to keep salt from caking: Over time, the effectiveness can run out.
“Decomposition always goes on, but it’s going to be minor with desiccant,” Oxley said. “Obviously, hot, humid weather is worse than cold weather in the [desiccated] decomposition period.”
To test how long the desiccant remains effective, experts would need to accelerate the aging process, something, “presumably, Takata has done,” Oxley said. “You take the thing up to elevated temperature, hold it for a while, and you crash it down to really cold temperature, and you temperature-cycle it.”
But for now, there is no firm answer about the long-term safety of the desiccated inflators. Asked by Cars.com about its current testing on desiccated inflators, a Takata spokesperson said only that, under the terms of its current consent order, the supplier is testing the safety and service life “of all inflators on the market.”
Meanwhile, Takata’s desiccated ammonium nitrate inflators appear still to be in widespread use in new vehicles for sale. Cars.com asked automakers if any of their new (2016-2017 model-year) cars have them. Here are those that responded:
Automakers With New Cars That Have Takata’s Desiccated Inflators
- Subaru: The company said the current Legacy sedan and Outback wagon have them.
- Volkswagen: Spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said the 2016 and 2017 Beetles employ them.
- Ford and Lincoln: Spokesman John Cangany said the 2016 Ford Fusion, Ford Edge, Ford Mustang, Lincoln MKZ and Lincoln MKX have them installed. He said that Ford is “on the path to replace all ammonium nitrate-based inflators in production.”
- Honda and Acura: The company said the 2016 Acura RLX and 2017 Acura RDX have them in the passenger-side frontal airbags, while the 2016 Honda CR-V has one in the driver-side airbag.
- Jaguar Land Rover: Spokesman Nathan Hoyt said the two brands “do use desiccated Takata inflators in some of our current products,” but he declined to name specific cars.
- Nissan: Spokesman Steve Yaeger said current models do employ them, but he did not respond when asked to name specific models.
- BMW: Spokesman Hector Arellano-Belloc said the BMW Group (which includes Mini and Rolls-Royce) has vehicles with them installed. Asked to name which models have them, Arellano-Belloc did not respond.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Sep. 2 when Toyota corrected its earlier assertion that Takata’s more volatile inflators would not be in the 2017 Lexus GX 460. Early-build 2017 GX 460s will still use the inflators.
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