A recent article by The New York Times gave us all a brief look at GM, Takata, history and profit motivation. The look is frightening. It shows how one corporation decided to put profits over consumer safety. Thanks go out to Louis Lombardo of Care for Crash Victims for the lead.
According to the Times story, General Motors in the late 90s (“Old GM” pre-bankruptcy protection) used to get its airbags from Autoliv, a Swedish-American company. Then, a practically unknown company by the name of Takata made GM an offer: much less expensive airbags. As much as 30% less expensive per unit, according to Linda Rink, the Autoliv senior scientist who was working the GM account.
When a major company has an opportunity to cut costs (and thus increase profits), do you think they ignore it? Absolutely not. For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of automaker/supplier relations, in such cases it’s quite common for the automaker to contact the supplier and tell it to either match the price or lose the business. According to Ms. Rink, that is exactly what GM did to Autoliv.
As Ms. Rink told the Times, “General Motors told us they were going to buy Takata’s inflators unless we could make a cheaper one. That set off a big panic on how to compete.” This is especially true when that 30% per unit adds up to several dollars per unit.
Well, when that happens, what is the supplier’s typical response? “Take a hike!” Again, absolutely not. Autoliv started looking at ways to replicate the less expensive part in order to keep GM’s business. However, not all corporations operate without a conscience and Autoliv had one.
In their investigation into producing a Takata-like airbag inflator, they discovered that the propellant being used was ammonium nitrate. When this was discovered, Autoliv’s head chemist at the time, Robert Taylor told the Times, “We just said, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’re not going to use it.’”
It wasn’t just Autoliv’s research that clinched their decision. There are decades-old studies on ammonium nitrate that warn of its volatility. As has been shown in the current Takata crisis, the compound can break down after exposure to temperature or moisture changes. The results when this occurs: the inflators explode with such force that they fill the passenger cabin with shrapnel, similar to the way in which Claymore anti-personnel land mines work.
According to another Times article that details what those whose vehicles have Takata airbags should do, “Defective airbags made by Takata have been tied to at least 14 deaths and more than 100 injuries. The ensuing recall — the largest in automotive history — has turned out to be messy, confusing and frustrating for car owners.”
A member of Mr. Taylor’s team who left Autoliv’s employ in April this year, Chris Hock said, “We knew that G.M. was getting low-cost inflators from others. That was a dangerous path.”
The entire story of GM’s decision of almost two decades ago has not been previously reported. However, thanks to the Times, the story is out now. As mentioned earlier, the implications are frightening. They suggest that automakers put profit over customer safety in an effort to save “a few dollars per airbag.” They also suggest that automakers are not innocent victims of Takata’s bad judgment but may actually have played a part in creating this crisis.
Most of the automakers involved in the Takata crisis refused to offer comment to the Times. The only one that did comment was GM. As expected, its spokesperson, Tom Wilkerson, used the bankruptcy as an excuse to get away with actually saying nothing. This same behavior appeared in the GM ignition scandal, too. Yes, GM filed bankruptcy in 2009 and was granted such protections. It also seems a convenient way to hide the truth, given that there must be records, even current employees, there with information.
Mr. Wilkerson’s comment was brief. He said that any talks with Takata “occurred two decades ago between old GM and a supplier,” making it “not appropriate for us to comment.”
The second Times piece is one I suggest readers go over in detail as it offers some helpful information if you happen to have a vehicle with Takata airbags.