A whistleblower who says he warned automotive supplier Takata years ago that the propellant the company used in its air bags could “blow up” and kill people says he will testify before a Congressional committee if he’s asked.
Mark Lillie, an engineer who worked at Takata for years, was mentioned in a December hearing about the Takata air bag problems held by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Company documents show that Mr. Lillie strongly objected to the company’s choice of ammonium nitrate in the air bags because it “predisposes the propellant to break apart.”
The ammonium nitrate-based propellant Takata puts in its air bags is now blamed for 139 injuries and six deaths, but that toll could continue to grow. The ammonium nitrate potentially causes the air bag to deploy with excessive force or even explode like a bomb, blasting metal shrapnel at vehicle occupants. Sometimes the Takata air bags explode even in minor bumps when air bag deployment isn’t necessary.
The defective air bags have been installed in hundreds of millions of vehicles produced by 10 different auto manufacturers throughout the world since 2000, but just 24 million of the affected vehicles have been recalled globally, including some 17 million in the U.S.
Takata started using ammonium nitrate in its air bags in 1999. Previously the company had used Tetrazole, a synthetic compound that cost about 10 times more than ammonium nitrate, which is a highly volatile natural compound.
“I literally said if we go forward with this, someone will be killed,” Mr. Lillie told Reuters. “I couldn’t in good faith pump this stuff out believing that it was unsafe to put in front of a passenger in a car.”
Mr. Lillie said he quit working for Takata when it became clear that the company’s executives in Japan had no intentions of changing the inflators or even addressing the safety concerns.
“I knew that ultimately there were going to be catastrophic failures,” Mr. Lillie told Bloomberg. “I didn’t want my name associated with it.”
Takata is now not only dealing with a global recall crisis, but allegations have surfaced that the company has destroyed data in an effort to conceal the air bag problems. The company still uses ammonium nitrate in the air bags it makes, but executives have conceded that the compound going into the inflator mechanisms now has been chemically revised.
Still, Mr. Lillie and another former Takata engineer claim that Takata conducted secret tests on air bags in 2004 and that the company is now hiding the results because they show the defects that the company’s top-ranking officials still refuse to acknowledge.
Reuters reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “is urging potential informants” with knowledge of “possible defects or any wrongdoing” by Takata to contact them.
“We encourage all individuals with information about the manufacture or testing of Takata air bag inflators, or who have knowledge of possible defects or any wrongdoing by the company, to make this information available to NHTSA,” NTSB spokesman Gordon Trowbridge told Reuters.