Toyota dealers told to disclose new vehicles with suspect airbag inflators

Toyota told its dealers Friday to disclose whether the vehicles they were purchasing were equipped with Takata airbag inflators that will be recalled by 2019.

Responding to pressure from lawmakers and regulators, Toyota Friday became the first automaker to order its dealers to voluntarily disclose whether a new vehicle the customer had purchased had a Takata airbag inflator installed that would eventually be recalled.

Early this week, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., released a report that showed four automakers were installing Takata airbag inflators that would eventually have to be recalled. The likelihood that airbag inflators would have to be called back increased last month when Takata, manufacturer of airbags that are the center of the largest safety recall in history, agreed to expand its callback program in the U.S. by up to 40 million airbag inflators. The agreement stipulated the callbacks would be phased through 2019.

The consent decree, agreed to by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Takata, set up an ongoing series of recalls. Since there are so many airbag inflators involved and since they could be part of any of five or six individual actions, it is possible that an automaker could install an airbag facing recall that would not be called back for several years.

On Wednesday, lawmakers and regulators, responding to a report compiled for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which indicated four automakers were still installing airbag inflators that used ammonium nitrate, without a stabilizing agent, the type that would be recalled. Takata has agreed to remove ammonium nitrate-bearing airbag inflators from all use by 2019. Until they are culled and removed, the airbag inflators are still available for use by carmakers.

Ammonium nitrate, a propellant used only by Takata, has been labeled as the cause of bursting airbag inflators that have been responsible for 13 deaths and more than 100 injuries, many serious. The issue is deterioration caused by moisture intrusion. Poorly built and sealed airbag inflators can allow moisture to leach into the propellant charge, causing it to destabilize and deteriorate. As it deteriorates, the propellant charge becomes stronger so that when – and if – it deploys the inflator can burst its housing, shattering the metal-plastic device. The pieces become shrapnel that scythes through the interior of a car – mainly Hondas, so far, although one Ford has been affected, too – causing injury and death.

Researchers have found that when the ammonium nitrate is used with a drying agent – desiccant – the propellant stabilizes and remains safe.

Toyota Friday became the first automaker to respond to pressure from Washington, telling its dealers to disclose, at sale time, which vehicles with Takata airbag inflators would be recalled. The Toyota models included are:

Sen. Nelson was quick to praise Toyota’s action. He called Toyota’s announcement a positive “step for consumers.” He indicated that he believed that while automakers “shouldn’t be selling vehicles with defective airbags, at the very least car buyers should know they’re purchasing a vehicle that will be subject to a future recall.” Last week, a report for the committee, released by Sen. Nelson, indicated that Toyota planned to make 175,000 vehicles with inflators that would be subject to recalls. Meantime, the other three automakers continued with their manufacturing plans. The devices are legal to sell. However, they must be called back by 2019.

Toyota was the first automaker to make this move voluntarily. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told the committee this week that though he would liked to have forced the automakers to make disclosures, he lacked the legal authority to do so.

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