By on December 24, 2014

AIRBAGS1-master675

The Takata airbag inflator problem illustrates a fine dilemma: quality standards across the auto industry are good, those for safety-critical devices are exceptional. The higher the standards, the more difficult it is to spot, much less address, potential problems. If there are only a handful of “incidents” reflected in accident or warranty reports, it requires luck to spot a correlation. Such reports aren’t necessarily high in quality. So even when there does appear to be a potential issue, small numbers and limited information make tracing the root cause(s) challenging and potentially impossible.

In Takata’s case, they have made over 100 million inflators of the type associated with 5 known fatalities and a handful of additional injuries when the inflators generated shrapnel. Likely they went off with a “bang” not a “whoosh”, but there are few data points, and the “bang” aspect destroys evidence. This is the veritable a once in a million occurrence. Is the problem systematic? If so, why? Until that is known, a recall is pointless. Indeed, the lower standards of a dealership service bay – we’re talking about millions of airbags being replaced – could readily create more problems than the original one-in-a-million defect.

Now I’ve sat through engineering presentations on design and manufacturing issues and looked at shop-floor process controls for many types of safety-critical parts, including airbags. Screws are torqued in, with digital records for each. Everything is bar coded, for full traceability. Mistakes still happen; machines get out of adjustment. But if each part is barcoded and scanned at each step, with a “check” (poke-yoke device) after each stage and frequent zeroing in of machines, you can tell when a part came off a misaligned machine, or is missing a screw. A scanner reads the code of each part on each new machine; anything with a barcode associated with a bad reading shuts down the machine, and it takes a supervisor to turn it back on. The part won’t be accepted by subsequent machines, so even if somehow it’s placed back on the rack, it should never make it to the end of the production process. In the worst case scenario a misaligned machine isn’t discovered immediately, but once it is, all the barcodes since the last alignment are flagged to prevent possibly defective parts from getting shipped. Customers get computer files of each check for each part, tied to machine data, shift, machine operator and so on. Those records are retained for at least 15 years.

While production is being ramped up, it’s not odd to test multiple parts after machines are turned on from the weekend, with another check following each shift change during the week. Testing is done whenever there’s a new batch of plastic or steel. Hence it can take months for a part to be brought to full production – and that’s subsequent to design validation, prototype testing and then running parts off the actual production line in pre-production runs.

Car companies like to double-source, so there can be a second plant, up and running. That provides negotiating power. It also provides backup in case of a mechanical failure that takes more than a few hours to resolve, or a batch of substandard materials that make an entire batch of parts suspect. No one is willing to deliberately pay for significant excess capacity, however, so turning out millions of replacement parts requires adding new lines. Even at an existing supplier that replicates the existing setup, the new machinery still has to be broken in and readjusted, and for safety-critical parts the ramp-up is gradual. No one wants to introduce new sources of error into the system. And at least some reports suggest that as much as anything, it may be overall sloppy production controls at Takata that are at fault, rather than one core issue; see the following Automotive News story that draws on Reuters.

In a major recall a car company is thus stuck: in the short run it has to get the replacement parts from the same firm that shipped defective parts.

So back to airbag specifics.

  1. Actual problems are exceedingly rare.

    Globally there are tens of millions of Takata airbags on the road, with virtually every car company as a customer; to date something approaching 20 million have been recalled, including vehicles assembled by at least 10 companies: Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and BMW. In the US alone there are over 300,000 airbag deployment per year, or on the order of 2 per 1,000 cars on the road per year (many trucks and older cars among the 250 million registered vehicles in the US – including my 1988 Chevy pickup – don’t have airbags). So using US numbers as a base, with Takata having produced over over 100 million airbags of the sort facing recalls, and cars on the road for 10 years, around the world 2 million have deployed. Of those, to date there are 5 known fatalities and several more injuries. There are additional reports of fragmenting inflators in scrapped vehicles, as at least in Japan airbags have to be detonated before a car is sent to a shredder. (I’ve watched that being done…)

  2. The cause is as yet unknown. According to a non-Takata airbag engineer I know, there are multiple failure modes that could generate the same shrapnel outcome. For example, it could be the propellant, or it could by the metal cylinder, or it could be only when there is a combination of stronger than normal propellant and weaker than normal steel tubes. Which failure mode(s) are leading to the observed problems? Small numbers mean (i) this analysis is intrinsically very challenging. It is complicated by (ii) the evidence going up in smoke when an airbag inflator explodes and (iii) other evidence going up in smoke because documents in Japan were sent to the incinerator.

    The concentration of incidents in very high humidity locales suggests deterioration of the ammonium nitrate “propellant” due to hydration, which could cause the sheets of material — which go “whoosh” – to crumble. Particles have more combustible surface area so generate more bang; clumps can concentrate the force in one part of the cylindrical propellant container and create a local shock wave that ruptures it. Disconcertingly, there are Takata incidents reported from areas not known for high humidity.

    So is humidity really the issue? I have given the interior of my car an unintentional steam bath or two, but it’s not the sort of thing you record carefully on your warranty card. It could still be a humidity issue. But…there could be two different problems, or one systematic problem and the random one-in-a-million manufacturing defect that escapes all the checks, or all random problems some of which just happened to be clustered geographically.

  3. This uncertainty is not a trivial issue. So in hopes of pinning down what is really going on, 10 automakers who use Takata airbags got together in Detroit a week ago Friday. This meeting was in effect a gathering of the global car company airbag engineering community. (Needless to say, in light of the continuing supplier price fixing scandal, this closed-door meeting of direct competitors sought and got clearance from the Department of Justice, under the proviso that it was limited to engineers discussing technical issues.) NHTSA is forcing recalls; carmakers aren’t yet convinced that merely replacing old inflators with newer and drier ones will fix the problem(s).
  4. If the actual problem is not systematic, then a recall is much ado about nothing, an expensive gesture that will cost lots of money but that will save no lives if the same one-in-a-million bad inflator ratio doesn’t change. Indeed, as a perennial pessimist I fear a rush to increase production will introduce new sources of defects, while making the monitoring of quality compliance more challenging. The bottom line could be a higher number of (idiosyncratic) random defective airbag inflators, not fewer.
  5. Again, car companies can’t simply substitute inflators made by other companies for a Takata inflator — they would have to design a product that matched the gas generation profile needed for the Takata airbag, verify their method of manufacturing produced parts that actually worked to design, test prototypes with the Takata airbag to make sure there was no unforeseen interaction (vent angles or orientation slightly different, lots of subtle interactions). Then they would have to set up a production facility, run off a lot of parts coming through the actual production process on the machines and tooling with the inspection processes that would be actually be used (rather than the prototype build process), and have these tested and retested. This is necessary because the bag portion is very, very specific (the exact grade of material and how it is folded are all very carefully specified, tested and then monitored during production for exact replication). It would be very hard to do this in under 6 months, and production does not ramp up from nil to full overnight.

    It would be impossible to do this in 6 months across all of Takata’s airbag-inflator-vehicle combinations, because each would need to be tested separately. Engineers can work 16 hour days for a while, but not for month after month. There isn’t excess engineering and testing capacity just waiting for a recall to come along, and car companies want their engineers to continue working on new vehicles, they don’t want to stop everything under development to re-engineer an old (perhaps decade-old) product.

  6. As far as I can tell Takata is the only inflator manufacturer that did not start out as a rocket engine or munitions company. Instead Takata was a cut-and-sew fabric operation that built its pyrotechnic capabilities from scratch. That adds to the suspicion of a systematic albeit very rare propellant problem, because explosives are tricky. (For the perspective of someone with experience in the defense industry, see this post on the NBR Japan Forum.) But again, the number of incidents remains very small and there is essentially no ability to cull the necessary information from incident reports or (when they were kept) piles of shrapnel.
  7. For reference, manufacturers of inflators include Autoliv (the other really big player), TRW, Key Safety Systems, Daicel and (making only inflators) ARC. Innovation continues in this area; Autoliv for example has an inflator that burns hydrogen gas to form water vapor. Over the next few years Takata may bleed business to rivals. Recalls may thrust them into some version of bankruptcy. However, Takata is a big enough player that for the time being car companies have nowhere else to go besides back to Takata.
  8. A car going 30 miles per hour is traveling 44 feet per second. If you hit a tree, the worst sort of accident, and are sitting 5 feet behind your car’s bumper, the airbag has 5/44 = 110 milliseconds to do its thing. Your airbag sensor needs to detect a sudden deceleration within 20 milliseconds, has to start the propellant igniting in another 2-3 milliseconds, and the airbag (some are over 20 gallons = 70 liters!) must inflate into the proper shape in another 60 or so milliseconds.

    Airbags ignite with the bang comparable to a fair-sized firecracker. Those who complain of airbag burns after an accident – not that such burns aren’t real, I’ve been at accident scenes – should be made to go to their local gym and have a boxer hit their face with a steering wheel to see what they missed. That airbags can be made to work, yet seldom cause serious injury, is to me pretty amazing.

  9. The numbers are clear: you are much safer in a car with a potentially defective Takata airbag than a car without any airbag. In the US alone, NHTSA estimates front airbags save over 1,000 lives a year, and lessen serious injuries by many times that number. Even if the inflator did spin off shrapnel, the chance you will be seriously hurt by that is lower. Afraid of projectiles hitting you? Consider the alternative: if you don’t have an airbag, your head is the projectile, hitting first and then slowing down the rest of your body. That story never has a good ending, and frequently has a fatal one.
  10. Always wear a seatbelt. It alone makes a big difference, and gives the airbag precious extra milliseconds to do its thing. All the people I personally know who perished in car accidents were sans seatbelt. Others in the same cars but belted walked away.

Back to the quality-safety dilemma. If you need to find a needle in a haystack, to make sure one of your cattle doesn’t ingest it, good luck. If you need to find a single needle in each of a field of haystacks, better luck. If you need to then reassemble all the haystacks exactly as they were, with a harmless needle look-alike in place, best of luck. You’d better be really, really sure that the while doing all this work you don’t introduce more debris into the hay, that your cows still get milked and fed on schedule – and that your house doesn’t burn down while you’re panicking in your hunt for needles.

So … with the information at hand, I’m not yet convinced the Takata recall isn’t doing more harm than good. (Caution: bad double negative, re-read slowly.)

Ralph Nader did help move the industry to produce safer cars, with real benefits. To me it feels like we’ve now reached the point of returns diminished past the point of usefulness.

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68 Comments on “Editorial: Takata and the Dilemma of High Quality...”


  • avatar
    319583076

    The vanishingly small number of failures compared to the population means we are way, way, way out in the tail of the distribution. Any sort of calculation of reliability or failure is fictitious in the sense that it does not correspond with objective reality. It can, however, provide some basis for decision making.

    In our general experience, we are ill-equipped to understand large and small numbers, i.e. 5 in 100,000,000, which only further complicates the issue. I agree that any actions are probably more likely to result in additional harm.

    • 0 avatar
      carguy67

      I believe it’s 5 in 2,000,000 … the number of fatalities in the bags that have been deployed (not just all in use). Extrapolating, we would expect about 250 fatalities if all 100,000,000 bags were deployed. Still, it’s a small percentage and you’re better off, statistically, with the bag than without.

      • 0 avatar
        319583076

        In human reality, there isn’t a discernable difference between 5 in 100,000,000 and 5 in 2,000,000 is my point. Anyone that says there is should be ignored.

        There are myriad greater risks you and I take in daily life than death by airbag. The funny thing about it, is for some reason people get excited about dying in certain ways but are ambivalent about dying in other ways – as though there is a difference.

        Merry Christmas, TTACers! See you all next year.

  • avatar
    carguy67

    I have one of the affected models–a 2008 Mustang–and was going to get a replacement airbag when I get the notice from Ford. This article has me re-thinking that response (although I probably will anyway, for resale reasons).

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      This is probably the best reaction to a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. Now that the cat is out of the air bag you’ll have to get it “fixed” or suffer the consequences of a worthless trade-in

      What are the alternatives?

      • 0 avatar
        NMGOM

        Lie2me – – –

        Alternatives:
        1) Don’t trade it in. Keep it “forever”. Airbags were reported to be “good” for only 10 years anyway.
        2) Private sale. Tell new buyer that airbags need replacement, and deduct some $$ for the inconvenience.
        3) Disconnect the airbags, and use 5-point racing harnesses with head restraints.
        4) Disconnect the airbags, and drive with a big pillow on the steering wheel (^_^).
        5) Junk the car and use it for parts, and get another one with proper airbag.
        6) Give the car to your rebellious teenage son, and tell him to “be careful”. It probably won’t last long anyway.

        Merry Christmas!

        =====================

        • 0 avatar
          Lie2me

          Such practical solutions…

          Happy Holidays to you

        • 0 avatar

          If it’s true that airbags generally aren’t good past ten years, I might get the 5 point racing harness when my car reaches 10 yo.

        • 0 avatar
          b534202

          If 10 years is the life expectancy of the airbag, then wait until 2018, and then do the recall.

          They’re offering you a fresh new airbag, why not?

        • 0 avatar
          50merc

          If I correctly understand the problem, disconnecting the airbag would do no good. Inflators are exploding on their own, not as a result of being triggered. You’d have to remove the inflator to avoid the very slight risk of autoignition. And then you’d be running the greater risk from being without airbag protection in a crash.

        • 0 avatar
          racer-esq.

          “Disconnect the airbags, and use 5-point racing harnesses with head restraints.”
          Bad idea. Snap your neck in a minor crash. I guess you could use a HANS device also.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            After considering all the creative alternatives to the Takata airbag, I have decided to just don a hockey mask whenever I drive

            – Jason

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            After cons1dering all the creative alternatives to the Takata airbag, I have decided to just don a hockey mask whenever I drive

            – Jason

          • 0 avatar
            05lgt

            I thought the helmets mass played a part in this. Bigger worry with a 5 point was pointed out by JB some time ago, in a rollover without a cage and with a 5 point you will die as the roof collapses the amount it’s designed to.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          Is that 10 year life for airbags a fact? If so, three of my cars have useless bags.

          • 0 avatar
            MBella

            No, they will likely work after. They have to be warrantied for 10 years and no manufacturer is legally required to take responsibility after 10 years for airbag faults. Obviously, if there was a big fault even after ten years, the manufacturers will still be sued. Some of the earliest vehicles affected by the Takata issue are older then 10 years.

    • 0 avatar

      To my knowledge there isn’t a real statute of limitations on recall repairs. We had a 1995 F-150 traded in with a fussed link recall for speed control and we got the part before we resold it. You could double check, but if I’m right, just wait until you want to resell it (and it should have no affect on trade in value)

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      Once the fix is available, wait a few months for the techs to get good at performing the repair. Then you will have a very small chance in failure. It is pretty hard to screw up an airbag replacement. They are very self contained units, and the SRS control unit is very sensitive to resistance values it sees at each igniter. Very small deviations will set a fault, and then a SRS light.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        After a few months they will be done with the repair action. Once they are in stock in sufficient quantities each tech will do a 15-20 or more per day and if they don’t already have experience R&Ring air bags they will have more than enough after the first day. When Toyota was recalling the accelerator pedals a good tech did 20 or so a day and had the tricks to do it quickly after the first day.

  • avatar
    burgersandbeer

    Great explanation of how hard it is to produce safety-critical parts, and everything that might go wrong in the process. This is one of the most informative, well-written posts I’ve seen here in a while. You need to write more for this site!

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Meh wagon is here.. anyone got change for a 5?

  • avatar
    Ron

    Congrats — this is an exceptionally well written and insightful article.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Recalls are driven by the magnitude of the consequences of failure, not so much by the odds. In other words, it takes priority because failure can kill you, even if it isn’t all that likely to kill you. (Death is as bad as it gets, obviously.)

    The airbag makers are in a lousy business. The margins must be low, yet the exposure to liability is very high. I can see why the OEMs outsourced it to third parties — they didn’t want to develop the expertise or take on the risk.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      “(Death is as bad as it gets, obviously.)”

      I would argue that that’s certainly not obvious. It is as unknown as it gets would be more accurate. It’s as certain as it gets is probably even more accurate.

      There’s more money and power in spinning the ultimate unknown into the ultimate bad, though.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        The point isn’t philosophical. Death is irreversible, so causing one is quite costly — the only way to mitigate it is to write a bigger check.

      • 0 avatar
        05lgt

        Death is bad, causing a fatal outbreak is worse, global pandemic would be on a live vaccines risk analysis (hopefully with a very low probability or some serious mitigation). Causing a war is pretty bad too. There are worse risks than causing a death.

  • avatar
    beastpilot

    Aviation has the same general quality tradeoff issues. It’s the safest form of transport, yet any time there is an accident, it leads to more regulations, which makes flying more expensive. Each of the recent accidents is really a random set of failures, so regulating them is almost impossible.

    At some point we just need to accept that going 600 MPH in a metal tube at 40,000 feet has some level of risk, and it’s mind blowing how safe we have made it. Instead, we sit around and treat any risk as unacceptable, even though we rode to the airport on our motorcycles.

    You could also probably write this article with a few changes to cover the vaccine argument- we save zillions of people with vaccines, so now nobody sees the diseases and starts wondering if the vaccine is worse than the disease, which it never statistically is.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Being that I noticed when I got home from the dealer’s recent basic servicing of my wife’s car, that it was low a quart of oil and the tires were unevenly inflated, that I’d feel too great about them putting in new airbags. What a dilemma to be in.

  • avatar
    redav

    Not mentioned, but if failure is due to environmental factors, then replacement with an identical unit still improves the risk (assuming the work is done properly) because the new unit will not have experienced the environmental factors.

    • 0 avatar
      carguy

      Yes but the problems introduced by the process of having local mechanics replacing thousands of airbag inflators could be greater than the actual problem. Everyone like to see action but a blanket recall could be worse than doing nothing.

  • avatar
    carguy

    Great article. Yes it is sad how badly this issue is reported on almost everywhere else.

  • avatar
    brn

    I agree the airbag fiasco was over inflated (pun intended), but one of the frequent defenses does bring up an interesting question.

    If airbags are only supposed to last ten years and the average car lasts more than ten years, a majority of cars should have their airbag replaced after ten years on the road.

    Why did the industry not prepare for “routine” replacement? I don’t see it listed in my owners manual anywhere. I get reminders from the dealer on other maintenance items, but never airbags.

    The truth is that the industry had no intention to replace airbags after ten years.

  • avatar
    ellomdian

    “Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.”

    Human beings are very, VERY bad at appreciating risk. Statistically, more people will be killed by other humans who thought they were sober enough to drive than by a defective airbag.

    The downfall of civilization won’t be nukes, religious fanaticism, or grey goo – it will be the expansion of corporate liability to the point of complete inaction.

    • 0 avatar
      hreardon

      “The downfall of civilization won’t be nukes, religious fanaticism, or grey goo – it will be the expansion of corporate liability to the point of complete inaction.”

      Great comment, ellomdian, and I could not agree more.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “Statistically, more people will be killed by other humans who thought they were sober enough to drive than by a defective airbag.”

      That’s not particularly relevant.

      The issue is that the airbag poses a risk of X, so the question is what can be done about it.

      People are very difficult to fix. If there was a button to push or part to replace to stop people from driving drunk, then we would certainly cons*der doing it. But there isn’t, so we can’t — the remedies for flawed behavior are far tougher to implement and less likely to succeed.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        “Statistically, more people will be killed by other humans who thought they were sober enough to drive than by a defective airbag.”

        Those impaired (defective) people too get recalled, before a judge

    • 0 avatar
      Counterpoint

      Let’s not panic over corporate liability for autos. The US federal government has a history of enacting product liability limits for strategically important industries. This is what saved the general aviation manufacturers several years ago.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      Statistically, more people will be killed by sober humans who thought they were competent enough to drive than by drunk humans who thought they were sober enough to drive.

  • avatar
    james2k

    What a thoughtful and insightful post. Thanks, Mike.

  • avatar
    GiddyHitch

    This kind of thoughtful and critical analysis is TTAC at its best. The number of fatalities reported seems lower than I have seen in other TTAC articles and if the statistics are in fact correct, the whole affair would indeed be much ado about nothing.

    A couple of things that I’m curious about: how does the Takata ‘failure’ rate compare to their competitors, and why Takata was so quick to throw their Mexican plant under the bus (in front of the airbag? Too soon?)? Furthermore, if the moisture-sensitive propellant was not stored properly (the suspected root cause when I was more closely following this story) and this was documented, why was it ultimately shipped to customers? Perhaps that theory has already been debunked however.

  • avatar
    hreardon

    This article makes me think of the debate around the upcoming federal mandate for backup cameras on all new vehicles. I believe the stat is that 210 people are killed annually due to backup related incidents.

    I’m not trying to be callous, but at a certain point we must reach diminishing returns on these mandates, no?

    • 0 avatar
      50merc

      In my opinion, backup cameras are worthwhile as comfort/convenience devices even if they didn’t prevent any injuries.

      • 0 avatar
        Drzhivago138

        Speaking from a farming perspective, backup cameras are the greatest things since sliced bread, particularly if they have the little measuring marks. Now one guy can hook up a wagon or hay rack in 1 minute rather than 5.

  • avatar
    fishiftstick

    Great article. As H. L Mencken said, “Every human problem has a solution that is neat, simple and wrong.”

    Our attitude toward safety issues is irrational, and bears very little relation to actual risks. Unfortunately, a 140-character, sound-bite world is not best suited to rational discussion.

  • avatar
    Counterpoint

    The cost of backup cameras is dropping rapidly while the monetary value of human life (as reflected in wrongful death lawsuit awards) continues to rise so that particular regulation is still on the right side of the cost / benefit curve. Besides the deaths, backup cameras also prevent a lot of property damage.

  • avatar
    JPaulV

    Mike, great article and fine points added to the discussion. I am with you in that the recall will very likely add more defective inflators solely due to the rush to replace them.

    The question I have been asking for years is why not design cars so there are not things in the interior for drivers of passengers to smash into. If anyone took a look at the interior of the 1949 Tucker. There was no dash in front of the passenger but a heavily padded structural member that joined the A-pillars. Other than the steering wheel the instruments were in a cluster on the steering column. Granted the steering wheel remains a problem from an impact stand point, unless the wheel is redesigned or removed entirely.

    There was a custom car built by Ed Roth in the 1960s that used two balls with finger holes, like the top part of a bowling ball, that actuated a hydraulic steering system. One ball was mounted in the console next to the driver and the other was mounted in a panel on the door at the same level as the console and parallel to the console. It would take some getting used to but it would eliminate the steering wheel and column.
    Another option would be to replace the steering wheel with a steering yoke like that in military fighter aircraft. It could be mounted between the driver’s legs and attached to the seating.

  • avatar
    JPaulV

    Regarding backup cameras:
    Rather than mandate backup cameras I would like to see cameras allowed to replace all of the external mirrors as well as making the rear view mirror a screen connected to a rear viewing camera.

  • avatar
    Mike Smitka

    Lots of nice comments, thanks! I’ll respond to several of the queries. First safety devices are designed for the life of the vehicle, though obviously brake pads and the like are replacement items. I’m not sure how that translates into design standards, but certainly it’s 15 years, including for the 30-odd computers in a modern “loaded” vehicle.
     
    Second, the passive restraint standard that led to airbags is specific to the US, and resulted from low compliance with buckling up. A vehicle that is Europe-specific can be designed to use smaller airbags because occupants are required to fasten their belts, and if they don’t, that’s their problem. However all manufacturers are required to have padded instrument panels and headliners and prohibited from using sharp corners. But airbags do a better job of decelerating the body slowly than does a padded interior. Consumer’s won’t use 4-point belts, leading to another partial fix, seat belt pretensioners.
     
    Third, there’s a large literature on the perception of risk, both in economics and psychology. As several comments point out, humans are really bad at making such calculations. We’re bad even with “normal” odds but we’re really bad when things almost always or almost never happen. State lotteries are really hard for me to understand…
     
    Fourth, there’s a very simple way to make our roads safer: insert a railroad spike, point out, in the center of every steering wheel. [Thanks to the economist David Hemenway for this suggestion.]
     
    Finally, the media focuses on fatalities, which have fallen on a passenger-mile basis. But some of that decrease is due to better-trained and equipped EMTs and advances in emergency medicine, not better safety devices. The insurance industry tracks claims in great detail, and I’m sure there’s analysis of the frequency of many types of accidents, and of the contributors to changes in injury rates etc. One of these years I’ll visit IIHS; that’s one of the questions I’ve saved up from them. But just from talking to people who’ve been in accidents, airbags certainly decrease injuries, and not just fatalities.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “there’s a very simple way to make our roads safer: insert a railroad spike, point out, in the center of every steering wheel. [Thanks to the economist David Hemenway for this suggestion.]”

      This is not a particularly compelling argument, and one that is contradicted by all of the available data (as well as your own argument that humans do a poor job of risk assessment.)

      Passive safety devices work, while active safety generally has minimal effect. The steep decline in fatality rates makes it clear that the best ways to improve safety are to create circumstances that reduce crash risk and to make cars that behave better in crashes.

      Improving equipment is relatively easy; trying to rewire how the human brain operates is nearly impossible. Scared straight programs of all kinds not only fail, but often backfire, while driver education has not been successful in doing much more than in teaching basic mechanical skills to those who lack them.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        This is a most interesting topic. My mother who is probably the most risk adverse person I know, never takes chances with investments, never cheats on taxes (not even a little), never speeds or blows a stop sign, never once my entire life have I heard her say, “Oh what the hell…” and do something impulsive, will not wear a seat belt. Can’t even tell her she’s breaking the law (she’s never had a ticket and doesn’t believe she’ll REALLY get a ticket) nothing you say or do will convince her. She’s 87, so I no longer bother, but I just don’t get it

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          Your mom has been driving for ages without a seat belt and hasn’t died yet, so she assumes that she doesn’t need one.

          People have a tendency to confuse anecdotes with data, and personal outcomes with odds. They believe that their own experiences are substitutes for pools of data, and that someone who has beaten the odds thus far isn’t subject to the odds.

          It’s one reason that the spike-in-the-steering-wheel theory and scared straight programs fail — when the terrible consequences aren’t immediately realized, then most people presume that they are either smarter than average and capable of beating the odds or else that they were lied to. Gut feelings in these circumstances lead to the wrong conclusions — the circumstances have to be similar to the proverbial hot stove (immediate consequences, with an obvious linkage to the direct cause) in order to deter behavior in significant numbers of people.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            I guess it’s somewhat the opposite of the gun argument. I always argue that I’ve gone my entire life without one, never once wished I had one, so I doubt there’ll ever be a reason to get one, though theoretically one could save my life someday

          • 0 avatar
            VoGo

            Out of love, I installed a spike in my mother-in-law’s car. I’m not sure if it is making her safer, though, because she knitted a cute wool cozy to go over it.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            I tried a silver spike on my mother-in-law, didn’t work, she stilled lived for many years after ;-)

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Guns actually support the point. Statistically, a gun is more likely to cause harm than it is to help. For every one person who uses a gun to protect himself, there are several more who suffer from some sort of negative consequence.

            However, the vast majority of guns provide neither safety benefit nor harm. What the advocates do is to combine those figures with anecdotes of when guns provided added safety, and presume that this means that guns produce a net benefit.

            But that’s the wrong math. To calculate the price of gun ownership, one needs to compare the macro, i.e. what the homicide rate and injury rate would be with gun restrictions in place versus the current US status quo. The net difference between these two circumstances is what is relevant, and the math does not favor the gun proliferation scenario.

            The rates and ratios of gun usage don’t matter. It’s the net increase in body count and injuries that poses the problem. That’s actually similar in concept to the recall — the issue is one of how many extra lives can be saved with the recall, not the percentage of airbags that work improperly.

          • 0 avatar
            VoGo

            I think it’s supposed to be a wooden spike or a silver bullet.

            What kind of family did you marry into?

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            Damn, that’s what I did wrong, no wonder

    • 0 avatar
      Sceptic

      Thanks for this great article. One of the best on TTAC in the outgoing year! Mike, you are one of the more intelligent and insightful TTAC contributors!

  • avatar
    EdG

    I’ve been coming to the TTAC site for years without bothering to register. Finally had to register today just so I could state how much I appreciated this article. Excellent analysis!

  • avatar
    Mike Smitka

    Thanks to Pch101 for the corrective. If we were rational, the spike idea would be unnecessary. And if we’re not rational — and in this sort of situation we clearly aren’t — it will only hurt. [The pun is accidental.]

    Scientific American (online, Dec 27th) has a note by Keith Stanovich on the lack of correlation between IQ and carefully rational thinking. One of their examples is based on vehicle-to-vehicle collisions, where one type of vehicle is much more likely to leave occupants of the other dead. (They apparently were working from a study using NHTSA data.) So, if we want to lower fatalities by much more than the number of people injured or killed by misfiring airbags, we should … prohibit pickup trucks?! Or with TTAC readers in mind, exclude sports cars and pre-safety-device classic cars from our roads?

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      Most of the cars without safety features will eventually wear themselves out. The regulators accept this — we’re not in Cuba, after all — and focus on making the new vehicles safer (which is appropriate.)

      I wonder whether we will eventually reach a point at which we have diminishing returns on passive safety, although we’re not there yet.

      If driverless cars work as intended (and I’m skeptical), then those should reduce fatalities dramatically, as the primary component of auto fatalities — human error — is removed or reduced from the equation.

      An obvious way to reduce the absolute number of fatalities would be to move people out of cars and onto other safer forms of transport such as trains and airliners. That won’t do much to reduce the fatality rate per mile/km, but it would reduce the total body count.

  • avatar
    daneli

    The Automotive News article linked to by Mike isn’t consistent with what Mike is saying about the high quality of safety critical components:

    Two senior Honda insiders, who asked not to be named, said the tests on 100-150 Takata airbags at Honda’s quality center near Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo, in the first half of this year indicated shortcomings in Takata’s manufacturing quality and cast doubt on the competence of a company Honda considered part of its core group of suppliers, or “keiretsu.”

    “We doubted if Takata was producing airbags to the specifications we had mutually agreed on,” one of the insiders said. “When we did not receive a clear analysis of what was happening, we decided to conduct our own tests … and we found the quality of those inflators to be all over the map in term of key quality metrics.”

    One of the Honda insiders said inflators from the used cars examined by Honda showed Takata was “extremely sloppy” in making the propellants that ignite to inflate the airbag in a fraction of a second in a collision.

    He said the inflators contained varying amounts of the prescribed mix of ammonium nitrate and secondary ingredients, with many going beyond predetermined margins of error, and varying amounts of chemical compounds that strayed from Honda-approved recipes for inflators.

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