Takata expands airbag recall in US to 34 million vehicles

Japanese company Takata Corp. on Tuesday, May 19, expanded its recall of vehicles in the United States containing its defective airbags to nearly 34 million, following more than a decade of denying that the devices were faulty.

The airbags, which can shoot out shrapnel into the cabin when deployed, have been linked to six deaths and more than 100 injuries, all of which occurred in vehicles made by Honda Motor Co., Takata’s top customer.

“Up until now Tataka has refused to acknowledge that their airbags are defective,” said US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “That changes today.”

The Takata recall is expected to be the largest recall of any consumer product in US history, surpassing General Motors’ recall of 30 million vehicles in 2014 for faulty ignition switches and other issues. It also eclipses the 1982 consumer recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol amid a prison scare.

As for consumer safety recalls in US history, Foxx said this is “probably the most complex.”

Years to replace parts, possible outsourcing to other airbag makers

With the magnitude of the recall, it could take days before vehicle owners are informed whether or not their models are affected, and a minimum of two years before inflators are replaced. A Takata spokesman said the company would boost output to 1 million inflators per month by September, up by 100,000 parts from the previous forecast and an increase from the present monthly production of 500,000.

A Takata spokesman said the company had so far made a total of 3.8 million replacement kits.

Honda, which has been most affected by the recalls, said it is considering other suppliers for replacement airbags. The recall has also affected nine other automakers, including Toyota and BMW, which said they need to review the announcement before proceeding further. Along with Nissan and Chrysler, the automakers did not indicate if they expect to have access to enough replacement parts to fix all the vehicles possibly equipped with defective airbags.

Among companies that may provide replacement inflators include Swedish company Autoliv—which said Wednesday, May 20 it is manufacturing replacement parts for Honda and other automakers— and Japanese companies Daicel Corp and TRW.

“We absolutely have back orders on inflators,” said Honda spokesman Chris Martin. “Some people may wait a couple days, some people m ay wait a few weeks.”

A win for the NHTSA

Worldwide, affected automakers have recalled more than 36 million vehicles. Last week, Honda, Toyota and Nissan expanded their global recall by 11.5 million cars.

The expanded recall marks a victory for the NHTSA, was criticized by lawmakers last year for its public guidance amid the regional recall.

“From the very beginning, our goal has been simple: a safe airbag in every vehicle,” Mark Rosekind, administrator of the NHTSA, said in a statement on Tuesday, May 19. “The steps we’re taking today represent significant progress toward that goal.”

In February, safety regulars began issuing fines on Takata worth $14,000 per day, because it had not fully cooperated in the agency’s investigation. However, with the expanded recall, regulators announced they would suspend the fine, which had amounted to more than $1 million.

In a statement, Takata said Tuesday’s announcement was the result of a year of working with automakers and the safety agency.

“We are committed to continuing to work closely with N.H.T.S.A. and our automaker customers to do everything we can to advance the safety of drivers,” said Shigehisa Takada, chairman and chief executive of Takata.

Recall could cost billions

The Wall Street Journal reported that the cost to replace a single faulty inflator ranges between $100 to $150. Scott Upham, chief executive of Valient Market Research and a former worker at Takata, told the Journal that the Japanese company could be responsible for recall-related charges worth anywhere between $4 billion and $5 billion, far exceeding the current estimate of $1.6 billion.

“A recall of this scope illustrates the potential for massive automaker expense and consumer inconvenience when a common, mass-produced part is defective,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, according to The Washington Post. “Ironically, the use of common parts across markets and manufacturers is meant to save money, yet a recall of this size will cost the industry billions.”

But Takata spokesman Hideyuki Matsumoto said the amount is dependent on future talks with automakers and that the company cannot provide reasonable estimates at the moment.

Takata airbag inflators are equipped with ammonium nitrate, which is used to cause a small explosion to deploy the airbags. The bags become prone to “overaggressive combustion” throughout time if exposed to high humidity and changes in temperature, the Japanese company stated. The company also acknowledged that it has discovered leaks in some inflators where moisture could seep into with time. When such an instance occurs, the propellant breaks down and becomes more likely to exploding violently.

Mixed reactions to Tuesday’s expanded recall

Following Tuesday’s announcement, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee and a central figure in a congressional investigation into the defective airbags, offered praise.

“Folks shouldn’t have to drive around wondering if their airbag is going to explode in their face or if their car is going to be on another recall list,” Nelson said, according to The New York Times. “Let’s hope Takata’s admissions today tells us the whole story.”

However, for 26-year-old Corey Burdick, a resident of Eustis, Fla. who was blinded in one eye last year when shrapnel shot out of the airbag in his 2001 Honda Civic, the announcement wasn’t received with open arms.

“I’d like to know why it took them till now,” Burdick said, according to the Times. “What’s different now from a year ago?

“It’s depressing because this could happen to someone else.” (With reports from Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post) 

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