Could there come a point where airbags need to be replaced on every vehicle, no matter the supplier?
Industry and government officials alike are beginning to ask whether airbags simply grow too old to work properly any more.
Following the recent death of a Canadian motorist, federal safety regulators in the U.S. have expanded a probe that could lead to the recall of 8 million or more vehicles to replace faulty airbags. Ultimately, as many as 50 million vehicles using Takata airbags could face recall. But the latest probe involves a different supplier, American-based ARC Automotive.
Both the Takata and ARC airbags may over-inflate during a crash, sending deadly shrapnel spewing into the passenger compartment. But a series of separate recalls announced since April of this year targeted more than 4.5 million other vehicles whose airbags may not function at all during a crash.
And that could be just a hint of an even bigger issue that could eventually pose a safety risk for virtually every vehicle on the road.
"Nothing lasts forever," said a senior executive with one of the world's largest automakers. He asked not to be identified by name or company because of the various liability lawsuits now facing the auto industry over airbag failures.
That's certainly the case with the Takata airbags. By some estimates, costs related to the problem could cost Takata and its customers anywhere from $12 billion to $20 billion.
According to research data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, tests have shown that airbags produced by the Japanese supplier for vehicles dating back to the 2001 to 2003 model-years may have a failure rate of as much as 50 percent. Newer models are expected to see increased failures as they age, as well.
Takata airbags are particularly prone to age-related failures, according to the NHTSA and other industry experts. The company used a highly volatile chemical, ammonium nitrate, in the inflator modules that produce the hot gases that propel its airbags out of their hiding place. An industry-funded research team this year concluded that the pyrotechnic chemical is especially sensitive to extended use in hot, damp climates, like southern Florida, but will eventually break down even in cooler, drier conditions.
Newer Takata airbags have added a desiccant, a chemical that absorbs moisture — much like the little packets found in everything from food to consumer electronics packaging. But, even then, many experts question whether that approach will prevent a breakdown of the ammonium nitrate compound for the life of a vehicle.
And that becomes even more of an issue as Americans keep their cars on the road longer and longer. Data from J.D. Power and Associates show the average vehicle in the U.S. fleet is 11 years old. And tens of millions have been in operation for 15 years or more. By law, they've all got at least one airbag. In some newer models, there can be a dozen.
There are a variety of different types of airbags, some use explosive inflators, others canisters of compressed gas. Hybrid systems use both. Those with chemicals like ammonium nitrate trigger the biggest concerns.
"You're using a chemical that probably should be changed out at least at the seven-year mark," said Scott Upham, a consultant with Valient Market Research, a firm that works closely with airbag suppliers.
But even compressed gas airbag systems can fail over time, Upham warned in an interview, noting that, like CO2 fire extinguishers, they may lose pressure over time.
"The automakers really don't want to admit that," he added, but, "I think that's going to be the result of this Takata debacle."
Actually, it is something that automakers are beginning to come to grips with, said the senior executive who agreed to discuss the airbag issue on background. "It is something we have to address as an industry," he said, adding that the NHTSA will need to take a leading role.
Agency officials said in a written comment that design or manufacturing issues appear to be the likely cause of the ARC Automotive airbag failure, rather than aging — though that latter issue has not yet been ruled out.
Even if that's the case with ARC, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind last year said in an interview that, "Cars are lasting on the road a lot longer than ever before. Is aging now an issue? That's part of the investigation going on."
Airbags are designed to fire off in a collision far faster than the blink of an eye. But beyond just sensing a crash "pulse," the electronic control system must determine whether to inflate any or all of the airbags found in a modern automobile. There are frontal bags, side-impact bags, rollover bags, each for a different type of crash. In some cases, an airbag may fire with reduced force, say, if a small woman driver is sitting close to the steering wheel, or not at all if there's a child carrier in the passenger seat.
Airbags are "the most complex component in a vehicle, even more than the engine or that high-tech infotainment system," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Automotive Safety, in Washington, D.C. Yet, while there are ways to test the condition of an engine, a transmission, or a vehicle's brakes, "There are no longevity tests for airbags."
Automakers try to simulate aging when they launch new vehicles or use critical new components. But this "accelerated aging process is difficult" with airbag components, especially when it comes to chemical inflators, cautioned Dr. David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Part of the problem is the varying conditions those airbags may face. Some cars struggle through lengthy winters, and temperatures dropping to -20 Fahrenheit. Others sit in desert sun, where ambient temperatures hit 120 degrees — and where the figure can reach 200 at the top of the instrument panel. Humidity can vary just as widely. And some cars may run over ruts, tracks and dirt trails that are rough enough to vibrate fillings out of a driver's teeth — and potentially break down chemical inflators.
The good news, according to analyst Upham, is that some compressed gas inflators are already equipped with sensors that can reveal when they lose pressure or face other possible malfunctions. It's another matter with chemical inflators.
Unless the industry can come up with reliable tests or sensors capable of quickly determining when an airbag goes bad, then, the only solution may be to mark them with an expiration date. And what then? Experts offer several possible approaches:
- The best option would be to develop a way to test airbags or sense a possible malfunction and alert the driver. New onboard diagnostics systems could even remotely alert the manufacturer;
- Motorists might simply be advised to replace the bags at a set date, whether seven, 10 or 15 years in;
- To ensure that happens, new rules might mandate replacements be made in order to register a vehicle, much as some lawmakers would like to do to force recall repairs;
- Airbags that go beyond their expiration date might be automatically disabled at a set time to prevent malfunction risks.
While federal regulators are especially worried about the oldest of the Takata airbags still on the road, they insist that newer models remain safe to drive. Indeed, while as many as 15 people may have been killed by malfunctioning Takata airbags worldwide, the NHTSA and safety advocates contend airbags routinely saves hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives each year in the U.S. alone, so they advise motorists that the technology shouldn't be disabled.