1/8th of Singapore’s Cars Could Be Death Traps

– Takata uses ammonium nitrate in its airbag inflators

– Faulty inflators have killed as many as 15 people, 4 in Malaysia

– New cars with ammonium nitrate airbags are still being sold

– Almost all major manufacturers are involved

– Recalls for affected cars are ongoing in Singapore

– Reported rate of action on recalls could be less than 50 percent

SINGAPORE — By now you are probably sick of hearing the name ‘Takata’ in the news accompanied by worried looks and serious-sounding analysts.

But Takata’s airbags are in tens of millions of cars globally and are the reason for the largest automobile recall in history.

Here’s what has happened, and what you need to do now to stay safe.

Long story short, what’s the deal with the airbags?
Takata issued a recall for faulty airbags in the US in 2013, but reports had come in about them since 2004. Since the first recall, the problem has become global, and involves at least 36 million cars, with some estimates as high as 100 million cars. Australia, Malaysia, India have issued their own recalls. In some cars the driver airbag is affected, others the passenger airbag, or both.

What exactly is the problem?
Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3). It’s a chemical substance used in fertilisers and explosives. It’s what terrorist Timothy McVeigh used to blow up a building in Oklahoma in 1995. A crystalline white powder (like sugar), it absorbs moisture when environmental humidity is more than 60 percent.

Takata is the only airbag manufacturer to use NH4NO3 in airbags. It was supposed to have used a desiccant to stop the chemical from absorbing moisture, but many bags were made with possibly no desiccant, not enough desiccant and/or faulty inflator design.

Moisture-laden NH4NO3 causes the metal inflator section to rupture violently when the airbag is triggered. The metal pieces fly into the occupants at high speed, much like the effect of a pipe-bomb or grenade. That’s right, there might be a grenade in your car, right in front of your face.

The latest tally is 15 deaths in total, including four in Malaysia, the latest as recent as June and more than 100 injuries (though some news outlets estimate more). The problem is complex and multi-faceted, so it doesn’t end there.

The official statement from Takata on the US-based recalls says: “The vast majority of the frontal inflators Takata produces today contain desiccant, a drying agent that acts as a mitigant against these environmental effects. Manufacturing variability may also play a role in the inflator failures, and certain vehicle models have been shown to have a much higher incident rate than others.”

What else could go wrong?
Initially Takata blamed the faulty inflators on its error-prone Mexico plant, and the issue seemed limited to the USA. However given fatalities have happened in Malaysia, and given the vagaries of the global supply chain, we don’t know for certain what airbags came from which plant ended up where. In our opinion, the problem is not just limited to one Takata factory, and global recalls support that idea.

With recalls for spreading, there is now a global shortage of replacement airbags, which means a complete fix may take years. And given Takata is still selling airbags that may explode a few years down the road, the situation is far from being resolved.  

Are new cars in Singapore being sold with ammonium nitrate airbags?
CarBuyer reached out to all the brands named in the global recall for information on this. As of July 20, 2016, only Audi, Honda and Toyota have replied with official statements.

Audi says there has been no update on the recall status for Singaporean vehicles with regards to airbags. No VW Group brands have recalled cars using Takata airbags in Singapore to date.

Honda states: “Takata uses Ammonium Nitrate in its propellant formula. There have been no ruptures of inflators with a desiccant. Honda will follow the NHTSA guidelines. Honda has already discontinued the use of non-desiccated inflators for mass-production automobile products.”

Toyota also says it uses ammonium nitrate airbags but with desiccants.

Are the inflators more likely to fail in our climate?

Recalls in the USA are being prioritised for places with high heat and humidity, so this certainly seems to be the case.

Honda’s response: “NHTSA has concluded that the non-desiccated frontal Takata airbag inflators do not pose an unreasonable risk to safety until they reach a certain level of propellant degradation. Honda had determined to implement a recall for subject inflators in the first stage of this recall expansion.”

Toyota’s response is that “When recalling and replacing affected inflators with new ones, we are taking measures in stages as we monitor the parts supply situation. The recalls are being conducted according to priorities determined by the level of risk associated with the involved vehicles. This includes vehicle age, long-term exposure to high absolute humidity, high temperatures, and high temperature cycling.”

How many cars are affected in Singapore?
One-in-eight of the 575,353 cars on the roads are affected. If you aren’t directly impacted, you probably know somebody who is.

What should I, a Singaporean consumer, do?

First of all, take this very seriously. Many here in fact, do not. The sales manager for a Japanese brand affected by the recall told CarBuyer that while they had repeatedly contacted relevant customers, fewer than 50 percent bothered to bring their cars in for rectification.

Most manufacturers who have recalled their cars have been contacted by their respective distributors. You can also check the LTA’s recall notice system online to see if your car is affected.

If you own a car that’s older than three years, then you should get in touch with your dealer to find out if any recalls (airbags or not) are in effect. If you sold your previous car that may have been affected, it’s also a good idea to notify the next owner if possible.

Those with parallel import cars need to see the original dealer who sold them the car for action.

Are the recalls really that important?

Yes. Your car’s airbag could explode in your face and kill you, so it is very important.

If the parts for replacement are not available, what should I do?
One solution has been to disconnect or remove the affected airbag entirely, but it has not been suggested widely because it may be (ironically) unsafe, or create further issues with insurance liabilities.

Why is all the information coming from the USA?

The problem was first reported on US soil, and the NHTSA there has taken the lead to investigate. It highlights the lack of accountability from carmakers and suppliers around the globe. For example, in Singapore, the LTA reports what recalls the manufacturer has officially declared. But if the manufacturer says nothing (and it could stay quiet until the issue blows up), then basically nothing is done.

This case is extraordinary though, as it involves an automotive supplier (Takata) that not only hid its own defects but even lied to its clients about the nature of the faults. It just happened to be the world’s biggest supplier of airbags – hence the scale of the catastrophe.

about the author

Derryn Wong
CarBuyer's chief editor has a keen interest in all things mechanical, technological, animal and mineral. He's particularly fascinated by eco-cars and cars which make no logical sense. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he also enjoys cats. Follow him on Instagram @werryndong