A Cheaper Airbag, and Takata’s Road to a Deadly Crisis
It reminds of how Ford sacrificed passenger safety to save $5 per car, with the result that some people were burned alive when their Pinto gas tanks exploded in rear-impact collisions even at relatively low speeds. If sacrificing customer lives can save a few bucks and deniability is possible, it seems that corporations will go for it. (Ford absolutely knew the danger, but figured that the profit would more than pay for the settlements. So: some customers are burned alive but a net profit is realized. That’s an easy decision for a corporation to make. (Cf. pharmaceutical companies that greatly increase the price of life-saving drugs: they don’t hesitate. As Heather Bresch of Mylan Laboratories said about raising the price of the EpiPen more than 400% after her company acquired the drug, “I am running a business. I am a for-profit business. I am not hiding from that.” And that is the essence: corporations will do anything to increase profits, and if so customers must die, then so be it.)
Hiroko Tabuchi reports in the NY Times:
In the late 1990s, General Motors got an unexpected and enticing offer. A little-known Japanese supplier, Takata, had designed a much cheaper automotive airbag.
G.M. turned to its airbag supplier — the Swedish-American companyAutoliv — and asked it to match the cheaper design or risk losing the automaker’s business, according to Linda Rink, who was a senior scientist at Autoliv assigned to the G.M. account at the time.
But when Autoliv’s scientists studied the Takata airbag, they found that it relied on a dangerously volatile compound in its inflater, a critical part that causes the airbag to expand.
“We just said, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’re not going to use it,’” said Robert Taylor, Autoliv’s head chemist until 2010.
Today, that compound is at the heart of the largest automotive safety recall in history. At least 14 people have been killed and more than 100 have been injured by faulty inflaters made by Takata. More than 100 million of its airbags have been installed in cars in the United States by General Motors and 16 other automakers.
Details of G.M.’s decision-making process almost 20 years ago, which has not been reported previously, suggest that a quest for savings of just a few dollars per airbag compromised a critical safety device, resulting in passenger deaths. The findings also indicate that automakers played a far more active role in the prelude to the crisis: Rather than being the victims of Takata’s missteps, automakers pressed their suppliers to put cost before all else.
“General Motors told us they were going to buy Takata’s inflaters unless we could make a cheaper one,” Ms. Rink said. Her team was told that the Takata inflaters were as much as 30 percent cheaper per module, she added, a potential savings of several dollars per airbag. “That set off a big panic on how to compete.”
Tom Wilkinson, a spokesman for General Motors, which was reorganized as a new company after declaring bankruptcy in 2009, said the Takata discussions “occurred two decades ago between old G.M. and a supplier,” and therefore it was “not appropriate for us to comment.”
“We knew that G.M. was getting low-cost inflaters from others,” said Chris Hock, a former member of Mr. Taylor’s team who left Autoliv in April. “That was a dangerous path.”
Even with the record recall, deadly accidents and research critical of ammonium nitrate, Takata continues to manufacture airbags with the compound — and automakers continue to buy them. The airbags appear in the 2016 models of seven automakers, and they are also being installed in cars as replacement airbags for those being recalled. . .
Read the whole thing. There’s more, and it’s a clear example of sacrificing customer safety for the sake of profit, just as the Ford Pinto was, or Martin Shkreli, or Jamie Dimon, or Heather Bresch.