Business / Corporate

Takata air bag crisis may spur maintenance changes in Japan

Bloomberg

Takata Corp.’s air bag crisis could spur changes in how car owners maintain their vehicles, with Japan’s automakers discussing whether drivers should regularly replace the chemicals used to inflate the safety devices.

Drivers may need to start having chemicals in their air bags swapped out because of degradation over time, said Fumihiko Ike, chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and Honda Motor Co. The discussions among carmakers follow recalls of more than 20 million vehicles and five deaths linked to the devices made by Takata.

“There will be discussions on whether chemicals need to be replaced after being used for some years,” Ike told reporters on Thursday in Tokyo during the association’s monthly news conference. “We have started informal discussions and it will be one of our subjects going forward.”

Takata’s regulatory filings and patents reflect concerns about the stability of ammonium nitrate, the chemical used as propellant to inflate its air bags. The company and its customers are investigating flawed manufacturing practices, the chemical’s exposure to moisture and degradation among other potential root causes that may explain why the devices can deploy with too much force, with metal and plastic pieces breaking apart and being shot at passengers.

“This should be a positive move to ensure air bag safety,” said Takeshi Miyao, a Tokyo-based auto analyst at Carnorama Japan. “Degradation is extremely difficult to find or to predict before the cars are used.”

The Japan automakers’ association will share its views about any potential changes to air bag maintenance measures with Japan’s transport ministry, Ike said.

Rival air bag inflator makers, such as Daicel Corp., Nippon Kayaku Co., TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. and Autoliv Inc. will benefit if carmakers make changes to maintenance recommendations, according to Miyao.

Honda, Takata’s biggest customer, has turned to Stockholm-based Autoliv and Osaka-based Daicel to supply replacement air bag parts for recalled vehicles. Takata will boost capacity at factories in China and Germany within a year, the Nikkei reported on Thursday, citing an interview with Chairman Shigehisa Takada.

Autoliv and Daicel may control more than half the global air bag inflator market by 2020 as Takata’s share shrinks, said Scott Upham, an analyst at Valient Market Research who has followed air bags since they were first going into cars a quarter-century ago.

Honda and Toyota Motor Corp. are among carmakers that have called back vehicles globally to replace Takata air bags. U.S. regulators are preparing for a legal fight if the Japanese parts-maker doesn’t comply with their demand to expand recalls nationwide after having allowed the industry to limit some campaigns to high-humidity regions.

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