15TH ANNUAL CHOICE
10 NOVEMBER 2020
Honda, Toyota, Lexus, BMW and Mazda
For repeatedly failing to disclose a safety device that can actually kill you
The recall of Takata airbags affects 100 million vehicles, and has resulted in more than 180 injuries and at least 18 deaths worldwide. The 2.35 million cars affected in Australia span 70 models that are sold by 14 manufacturers.
There isn't a part of this recall that doesn't leave us concerned, but the dubious honour of a Shonky specifically goes to five car makers because they failed to be upfront with their customers about the dangers.
Honda, Toyota, Lexus, BMW and Mazda didn't tell drivers they'd been provided with a temporary fix, and failed to let a number of them know they were driving around with lethal 'alpha' inflators. Where other car makers, such as Subaru and Nissan, did either one or the other, these five car makers are guilty of both.
A parts shortage has led to car makers replacing defective airbags with identical models that will also need to be recalled in the near future. But the car makers – including Honda, Toyota, Lexus, BMW and Mazda, as well as Subaru – failed to tell customers they'd received an airbag replacement that comes with the same design faults. Withholding this information could see upcoming recall notices ignored as owners think they've already taken their car in for a 'fix'.
It's unclear how many cars have been serviced with like-for-like replacements for defective Takata airbags. Approximately 850,000 vehicles have had their airbags repaired. Our investigation suggests roughly 100,000 have received like-for-like replacements, and that some car makers are still swapping defective airbags with identical models.
But perhaps the most concerning part of this recall has to do with 'alpha' inflators. These are early versions of Takata airbags that sustained numerous defects when manufactured. Takata airbags can rupture in approximately one in 400 cases, but alpha versions of the airbag can misfire in up to one in two deployments.
When CHOICE revealed in August that alpha inflators were still fitted to 50,000 cars in Australia, the car makers responsible had made no discernible efforts to inform affected drivers of the increased danger.
The Australian arms of Honda, Toyota, Lexus, BMW and Mazda, as well as Nissan, hadn't mentioned alpha inflators (or PSDI inflators, as they are technically known) on company websites, dedicated recall sites or news sites. The recall notices posted to Product Safety Australia did not detail the higher risks of an airbag rupture; some manufacturers didn't even recognise the potential risk of death. Nor did these companies issue media releases in an effort to reach the remaining owners.
We can think of a number of reasons why car makers chose not to let customers know. Airbags firing shrapnel at drivers can't be good for the reputation. Then there's the added cost of offering a loan car or a tow, just as Honda is doing in the US. But the problem with this school of thinking is that none of these reasons put the safety of customers first.