Bloomberg News: Takata Patents Show Decades Spent Seeking Safer Air Bags

By Jeff Green and Margaret Cronin Fisk

Air bag patents show researchers probed ways to make the devices more durable and the explosive propellant inside them more stable for decades before Takata Corp. (7312) products designed to save lives started killing people.

The patents, some from as early as 1985, were intended to improve the ammonium nitrate propellants that help inflate the bags and strengthen their metal housing. The applications provide ammunition for lawyers seeking to show the Japanese supplier could have acted sooner to head off defects linked to at least five deaths globally after air bags have deployed with too much force, said Jason Turchin, a lawyer who represented a driver injured by a Takata air bag in a 2006 Chrysler sedan.

“I look at this as a road map,” said Turchin, who has two other air bag cases pending. “You’re trying to understand how this happened and why this happened, who knew what and when. Right now, plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t have a lot of answers. They need to have a way to know what questions to ask and what documents to request.”

Takata executives are being second-guessed by lawyers, U.S. regulators and members of Congress as recall numbers climb beyond 10 million involving at least 10 global automakers. Takata said last week it still doesn’t fully understand the root cause of the failures which have also injured hundreds of people. The Tokyo-based company has said it’s been aware since 2005 of a flaw on air bags made as early as 2000.

Risks Known

A Bloomberg News review of the patents studied by Turchin as well as several others shows that Takata researchers have been aware of the instability of ammonium nitrate and other risks for more than a dozen years.

Turchin cites two patents, one from 1985 and another from 1989, that address the possibility air bag housings can degrade at high temperatures and otherwise be at risk of rupturing or breaking apart. At least seven applications from Takata cite those two patents, according to a patent search by Innography Inc., an Austin, Texas-based maker of software to analyze patent portfolios.

Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. were among automakers last week that agreed to seek independent testing of Takata air bags and expanded recalls based on evidence showing new risks for models not included in earlier safety actions. Honda expanded U.S. recalls by 2.6 million, to about 5.4 million, for driver’s side air bags.

Flawed Manufacturing

A Takata executive told Congress last week that a flawed manufacturing process for the ammonium nitrate pellets ignited to create the gas needed to fill the air bags meant the mixture exploded with too much force. That caused the canister meant to contain the explosion to break into pieces and strike passengers, the company said. The company has also said moisture entering the air bag inflator as well as the age of the equipment may be factors in some of the failures.

Takata and all safety companies need to be able to seek solutions to possible shortfalls in safety equipment without fear of retaliation if the industry is going to advance, said Douglas Campbell, president of the Automotive Safety Council, an industry advocacy group for more than 30 safety-equipment makers including Takata.

Previous generations of air bags used a much more toxic compound as the explosive to inflate the bag and the equipment was activated using a metal ball rolling in a tube based on the crash severity, he said. Today’s bags use sophisticated computer sensors, he said. U.S. data shows 37,000 people were saved by the technology from 1986 to 2012.

Read the full article online at Bloomberg News