An Explosive Revelation

An Explosive Revelation typographic title
Airbags are meant to be protective.
But what if they could be a deadly threat? Kevin Fitzgerald ’84 is on a mission to keep you safe behind the wheel.
by Tom Wilmes

An Explosive Revelation

An Explosive Revelation typographic title
Airbags are meant to be protective.
But what if they could be a deadly threat? Kevin Fitzgerald ’84 is on a mission to keep you safe behind the wheel.
by Tom Wilmes
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n June 2000, Kevin Fitzgerald ’84, engineering manager of the inflator applications group at Takata, was at his desk at the company’s plant in LaGrange, Ga., when the sound of an explosion startled everyone in the office. Jumping to his feet, Fitzgerald immediately knew what had happened. He’d heard a similar explosion just a few months prior when one of the company’s new line of airbag inflators catastrophically failed a manufacturing validation test. With mass production of the inflators set to begin in a few weeks, these failures were cause for immediate concern.

“So, I ran down there, and I got in the middle of it,” Fitzgerald says.

Little did he know that what came next would mark the beginning of an ordeal that would reshape his life, challenge his principles and ultimately trigger the largest safety recall in automotive history.

Kevin Fitzgerald sitting in the driver seat of a car
Photo: Tim Webb
Kevin Fitzgerald ’84 continues to track fatalities and ongoing recall efforts; he publishes a report on LinkedIn every six months.

Building a Foundation

Fitzgerald was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised north of the city in Rockland County on the Hudson River. The son of Irish immigrants and the middle child of three siblings, he excelled in math and enjoyed building Erector sets and putting together models. After graduating from Don Bosco Prep, a private Catholic boys school in New Jersey, he set his sights on Bucknell University. He knew the school had an outstanding reputation, especially for its engineering program. A partial scholarship to play soccer helped cement his decision.

A few months into his first year, however, Fitzgerald decided to give up soccer — and the scholarship — to focus more fully on his studies. “Bucknell was hard,” he says. “I remember I got a 32 on my first physics test. I thought, This is serious. I can’t just skate by.” This is, not to say that he didn’t find time to enjoy campus life. Fitzgerald joined Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and at a mixer one evening, struck up a conversation with Sandy Greenly ’85, from nearby Milton, Pa. Greenly built her major in marketing communications and was a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority.

They remained friends throughout school but never dated. That is, until Sandy moved to Manhattan after graduation and they reconnected. The couple married in Rooke Chapel in 1988, and today they have three grown sons. Fitzgerald credits his upbringing, Sandy’s unwavering support and his Bucknell education with equipping him with the skills, tenacity and integrity he’d rely on to bring his employer’s wrongdoings to light. “My engineering skills and the ability to recognize and defend what is right came from Bucknell,” he says.

A Line Is Crossed

In September 1998, a federal law requiring all cars and light trucks sold in the United States to come equipped with driver- and passenger-side airbags went into effect. The design and specifications of those airbags, however, are left up to automakers. Japanese company Takata manufactured airbag inflator systems, small pyrotechnic devices that upon impact ignite a solid propellant and create a large volume of gas, which inflates the airbag within milliseconds.
“I just try to keep making noise as much as I can. One person out there, still fighting.”
Kevin Fitzgerald ’84
Due to its use of ammonium nitrate (a highly efficient compound that requires less material to combust and convert to a sufficient volume of gas) as a propellant, Takata’s inflators are smaller and less expensive than those made by competitors. However, the material’s integrity is also susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity.

As an applications engineering manager at Takata’s Georgia plant, Fitzgerald and his team were responsible for verifying that inflators rolling off the assembly line performed to the same standards as the ones developed at Takata’s U.S. headquarters in Armada, Mich. “We took parts off the line and subjected them to the same testing we did in our design validation — a series of environmental, sequential tests subjected to heating, thermal shock, humidity and vibration shock,” Fitzgerald says. “And stuff was blowing up.”

Had Takata paused production to address the underlying issue, that would have likely been the end of it. However, a line was crossed in Fitzgerald’s mind when he found out that company executives doctored a report to Honda showing that a large batch of inflators performed perfectly — a report Fitzgerald’s team had never seen yet had supposedly signed off on. “They had taken tests where inflators exploded and replaced them with data that made the results appear good,” he says. “We got wind of that, and we wrote the real report ourselves.”

Fitzgerald presented the amended report to the vice president of inflator engineering, who replied that although he hadn’t read the original, he was assured it was accurate. Shortly after, Fitzgerald’s entire department was relocated to Michigan — without Fitzgerald, who was offered the position of plant engineer. Takata shipped its inflators to automakers. Fitzgerald resigned.

Back on the Inside

Fitzgerald moved on to another manufacturer and gained operational experience running a plant in the United Kingdom and opening one in Mexico. When his new employer began experiencing financial distress, it became clear to Fitzgerald that he needed to find another position. So when a recruiter contacted him about an open position in operations at Takata’s Michigan headquarters, he didn’t dismiss it. “The position was in my wheelhouse, it’s what I love to do and it came with significantly more authority,” he says. “They also knew my history with the company, and so I took their offer as a clear sign that they wanted to do things right.”

Fitzgerald and his family relocated to Michigan, and he rejoined Takata as director of operations in 2005. Fitzgerald was placed in charge of applications engineering and of validating inflator designs. He took those duties as an indication that the company valued his oversight — until he uncovered that the pattern of falsifying reports for automakers had continued. “That’s when I started documenting everything,” Fitzgerald says.

Takata began adding a moisture- wicking desiccant to its inflators in 2008, which proved to be effective and resulted in far fewer units failing the testing process. But that did nothing to change the fact that millions of nondesiccant inflators were still on the roads.

In May 2009, 18-year-old Ashley Parham became the first victim of a defective Takata airbag. She was killed in a low-speed crash when her neck was lacerated by shrapnel from a non-desiccated inflator in her Honda Accord. Later that year, on Dec. 24, 33-year-old Gurjit Rathore was killed in a similar manner while her three children were passengers in her Honda Accord. Takata called the incidents isolated anomolies.

Throughout this time, Fitzgerald continued to voice his objections to Takata’s management. He continued to be ignored. “Nothing had changed,” Fitzgerald says. “There was the same root problem. No matter how much I screamed and ranted, they weren’t going to pull millions of inflators back from the field.”

Says Sandy: “He fought it for a long time within the company, but when they made it clear that they weren’t going to do anything, that’s when he went to the FBI.”

The Consequences of Truth

By 2014, there were four more fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ordered Takata to initiate a nationwide recall of its nondesiccated inflators. Takata declined to comply. By that point, 11 U.S.-based automakers had issued independent recalls of vehicles with Takata-made airbags. Affecting more than 14 million vehicles, it would become the largest and most complicated recall in automotive history. A New York Times article detailing injuries and deaths linked to Takata prompted Congress to schedule a hearing and the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation.
impact during a crash test showing the proper deployment of a Takata airbag
Photo: Courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety performs crash tests to ensure airbags work without issue. This image shows the proper deployment of a Takata airbag.
“It’s injuries we don’t even hear about; the fallout is solved behind closed doors.”
Kevin Fitzgerald ’84
In late 2014, Fitzgerald secured a lawyer, resigned from Takata and contacted the FBI. He spent three months helping agents sort through the documentation he provided, which demonstrated a clear pattern of falsified reports and misleading information. The number of vehicles under recall swelled to more than 70 million.

In January 2017, the U.S. government charged three Takata executives with culpability as a result of the information shared by Fitzgerald. The company agreed to plead guilty and pay $1 billion to resolve the investigation, including a $25 million fine, $125 million for victim compensation and $850 million to compensate automotive manufacturers. Takata subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection and was acquired by Key Safety Systems (today Joyson Safety Systems).

Continuing the Fight

While Takata no longer exists as a company, the risks associated with the inflators it manufactured only increase with age. Finding those vehicles is also increasingly difficult. Cars are bought and sold, many are never registered and some end up overseas where there isn’t U.S. oversight. Several manufacturers also filed petitions to exempt their vehicles from the recall, claiming that they aren’t impacted. “We fought this; we were relentless in seeing that their petitions were rejected,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald’s current focus is on the 36 million Takata desiccated inflators under investigation by the NHTSA. The once-protective desiccant is now likely saturated with moisture, so it’s no longer effective, Fitzgerald says. “It’s just a matter of time before they become a problem,” Fitzgerald says. “We now have a list of vehicles to point to; we had to work hard to have the NHTSA release the list to the public. People should know if they have one.”

In the meantime, airbags continue to explode and, most years, several more deaths occur. Thirty deaths and hundreds of injuries have been linked to Takata-manufactured airbag inflators.

“The bulk of my advocacy work is the 11 million inflators that are still on the road and some of the antics that the automakers are up to. There’s probably 8 million [vehicle owners] that are shoved into categories like ‘nonresponsive’ and ‘other’ that essentially erases them from the ranks,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s impossible to get people to lock onto the issue because it’s five deaths a year. It’s injuries we don’t even hear about; the fallout is solved behind closed doors.”

Fitzgerald tracks the fatalities and ongoing recall efforts and publishes an updated report on LinkedIn every six months. In 2019, he published a book, co-authored by David Schumann, with whom he worked at Takata, titled In Your Face: An Insider’s Explosive Account of the Takata Airbag Scandal. Eight people died from exploding airbags in the two years it took to finish the book.

“Kevin is the kind of person who is going to do what’s best for everyone and will take the heat if it’s the right thing to do,” Schumann says. “Kevin takes care of people, and he wants to do well by people. Although this fight has probably gone on far longer than anyone would have thought.”

Being a whistleblower comes at a tremendous personal cost. A 2010 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that individuals who speak out against their employers face great consequences to their professional and personal lives, often with social ostracism and health complications tied to the stress of the experience, particularly if there is litigation.

“It’s tough,” Fitzgerald says. “I’m a career nomad, basically. You get shoved out of your career. You get blackballed from the industry that you built your career in. Financially, it’s destroying.”

The Fitzgeralds have moved several times since Kevin separated from Takata. He’s pursued job opportunities in California and at a startup company in Kentucky. Although that company has since been acquired and moved its operations, the couple has found a haven in Kentucky, where Fitzgerald is a freelance technical writer and continues his advocacy work.

“As hard as it’s all been, good has come of it,” he says. “I’m a much more spiritual person. I’ve surrendered my life to a higher power. I quit drinking, and I quit smoking. I’m a happier person than I was when I had that career. I know I did what was right.

“I just try to keep making noise as much as I can,” he says. “One person out there, still fighting.”

To check if your vehicle is on a recall list, visit Follow Fitzgerald and his work on LinkedIn.

Engineering Safety

The invention of the airbag is credited to John W. Hetrick, an engineer from Newport, Pa., just 45 miles from Lewisburg. In 1952, he was out for a Sunday drive with his wife and daughter when he swerved to avoid hitting a deer and ended up in a ditch. While driving home, he started formulating the idea for a protective device that could deploy from a vehicle’s dashboard. Hetrick received a patent for his device in 1953, but it would take decades before it would become an automobile industry standard.

When engineered properly and paired with a seatbelt, today’s modern airbags offer tremendous protection to drivers and passengers. Airbags are credited for saving more than 50,000 lives since 1987, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Here’s how the protective technology is engineered to work.

  1. Each vehicle contains a control unit that monitors and processes signals of several sensors — impact sensors, wheel speed sensors, brake pressure sensors, accelerometers — to determine if a crash has occurred. If a collision of a certain severity is detected, it informs the device’s initiator.
  2. The initiator ignites a propellant or chemical explosive that converts from a solid to a gas, filling the cushion in a blink of an eye (60 milliseconds).
  3. As the airbag absorbs the force of a vehicle’s occupant, the gas dissipates through vents in the airbag, and it deflates.