Safety question – what happens to aging airbags? image

Airbags might be the single most important auto safety technology created during the past century, but the recent safety crises involving the part have also sparked concern that age might play a factor in turning them into a threat.

No less than eleven different automakers (across their numerous brands) have recalled to date at least 40 million autos across the planet to be serviced because they were equipped with potentially defective airbags produced by Japan’s Takata auto safety supplier. The airbag inflators can explode with too much force and send metal debris flying inside the cabin at high velocity – with eight fatalities and more than a hundred injuries tied to such incidents. And in America the top safety agency – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – has initiated an investigation into a second supplier that had similar issues with the restraint system. “Cars are lasting on the road a lot longer than ever before,” said Mark Rosekind, head of the NHTSA. “Is aging now an issue? That’s part of the investigation going on.” There is a growing debate among automotive regulators, safety advocates and industry officials whether the technology that saves lives over time could morph into a threat.

Since the 1990s regulations have mandated the usage of airbags, credited since with saving thousands of lives each year. They are designed to stay hidden until needed, when a pyrotechnic inflator will deploy a cushion designed to absorb a significant amount of the impact’s force. And with the pyrotechnic systems seems to lay the potential problem. They are essentially what the military calls “shaped charges,” explosives packed in such a matter that speed and direction is carefully controlled.