Volkswagen AG and Tesla Motors Inc. are the only automakers that have avoided U.S. recalls while continuing to use Takata Corp. airbag inflators, which have triggered a global safety crisis.
Takata has produced 887,055 airbag inflators for Volkswagen since January 2011, and a combined 184,926 units for Tesla since January 2012, and the two companies are ongoing customers, Takata said in a letter last month to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency had asked Takata in June to list the companies in North America that it supplies with inflators containing ammonium nitrate propellant.
The disclosure highlights the potential risk for Volkswagen and Tesla to join 11 automakers already recalling vehicles, if investigations determine that ammonium nitrate is unsafe to use. Takata has said that the chemical appears to be one of many contributing factors into the airbag ruptures, along with flawed manufacturing processes. About 32 million vehicles have been recalled in the U.S., and the devices are linked to eight deaths and 130 injuries.
“I’m very sure that the propellant is the problem,” Jochen Siebert, managing director at JSC Automotive Consulting, said by phone. “Of course, if you add a bad process on top of that, it only makes this even worse.”
Takata is still compiling data on any airbags the company supplied to carmakers that installed them in vehicles manufactured outside the U.S. and then later imported them.
The company will pass on that information to NHTSA when it’s ready, according to the letter.
Jared Levy, a spokesman for Takata, declined to comment on whether the inflators made for Tesla and Volkswagen are different from those that prompted recalls by other carmakers.
Tesla said Monday that Takata has assured the Model S maker that it’s not affected by the recalls. Volkswagen spokesman Michael Franke said the automaker is investigating potential safety concerns with Takata side airbags and is cooperating with NHTSA.
“What we’re trying to do is gather up all the information that we can about the entire universe of these inflators,” Gordon Trowbridge, a NHTSA spokesman, said of the order the regulator sent Takata in June. “We’re not asking because we’ve got reports of problems; we just need to figure out what the universe is.”
The use of ammonium nitrate appears to be one of many contributing factors to air bag malfunctions, Kevin Kennedy, Takata’s executive vice president for North America, told a House committee in June.
That same month, a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV executive said the company made a permanent switch to an alternate inflator design from ZF TRW Automotive that doesn’t use ammonium nitrate as propellant.
When pressed by lawmakers about the safety of ammonium nitrate, Kennedy has emphasized the growing role Takata’s competitors are playing in making replacement inflators that don’t use the chemical.
TRW, Autoliv Inc. and Daicel Corp. made about half of the replacement inflators for recalled cars in June, Takata said in its letter. The company estimated that its competitors will make about 68 percent of the inflators by March.
(With assistance from Dana Hull in San Francisco and Naomi Kresge in Berlin.)
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