R. Scott King, BSME, Principal Automotive / Mechanical Engineer
It is probably a good thing that most people could not name the manufacturer of the airbag installed in their vehicle’s steering wheel or dash panel. Airbags should be anonymous, as their brand is irrelevant to the occupants they protect; however, there is one airbag manufacturer that has pierced the veil of airbag anonymity, but for all the wrong reasons: Takata. With tens of millions of airbags recalled world-wide due to numerous serious injuries resulting from exploding metallic canisters, Takata – now in bankruptcy – as well as dozens of its corporate customers, are increasingly becoming the focus of liability investigations when improper airbag performance is suspected.
The “typical” Takata airbag malfunction is manifested during airbag deployment events. Over time, the metallic canister that contains the airbag pyrotechnic charge can weaken. As a result, the deployment detonation that normally ejects the airbag can cause the canister to explode, which produces metallic shards. Albeit rare, a tell-tale sign of canister explosion – apart from finding metallic fragments throughout the occupant compartment, or worse – is finding tears, rips, and holes in the airbag fabric. Although not an exhaustive evaluation, a routine, non-destructive airbag examination can quickly identify this kind of evidence. However, there can be times when unfurling an airbag during a preliminary, post-crash examination is ill-advised. Such was the case in a recent vehicle examination.