Takata Corp. gave in to U.S. regulators on Tuesday, agreeing to double the number of U.S. vehicles recalled for air bag replacements to nearly 34 million, in what will be the largest automotive recall in history.
About one in seven of the more than 250 million vehicles on American roads are now involved, from 11 different automakers who used air bags from Takata. The airbags can explode violently when they deploy, sending shrapnel flying into a car’s passenger compartment. Six deaths and more than 100 injuries worldwide have been linked to the flaw.
“Up until now Takata has refused to acknowledge that their airbags are defective,” said Secretary Anthony Foxx of the U.S. Department of Transportation. “That changes today.”
At a news conference in Washington, Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said it could take years for all the repairs to be made. Besides being the largest auto recall, he said, it might be the largest product recall of any kind.
As part of a consent order, Tokyo-based Takata agreed to make the recall nationwide — a step it had resisted — and submit its air bag parts to the U.S. government for testing. The agreement offers a way for Takata to resolve a global auto-safety crisis that made it a target for lawsuits and hurt the company’s standing with the automakers it supplies.
The recalls of passenger-side air bags, previously limited to high-humidity states along the Gulf Coast, are now expanded nationwide to include 16 million vehicles. A nationwide recall of driver’s air bags was expanded to more than 17 million vehicles.
“We are pleased to have reached this agreement with NHTSA, which presents a clear path forward to advancing safety and restoring the trust of automakers and the driving public,” Takata’s chief executive officer, Shigehisa Takada, said in a statement.
The case involves air-bag inflators that may have been degraded by moisture, causing them to deploy with too much force in a crash.
As part of the consent order, Takata released four defect reports, spelling out safety hazards on various sets of vehicles. The company gives different estimates on how long replacement inflators may last in different kinds of climates, including the high-humidity states that were the focus of the early recalls.
The traffic safety agency couldn’t provide a precise timetable on when repairs would be complete because of the complexity of coordinating with so many automakers. And because the root cause of the defect still isn’t known, it’s uncertain that replacement air bags will last the entire life of the vehicles and it’s possible consumers will need a second repair in several years, Rosekind said.
“We know that the ones that are going in are safer,” Rosekind said. “The concern is, are they safe over the long term? That has yet to be determined.”
Older vehicles and those in high humidity states will get the highest priority in rolling out repairs, Takata said in its statement.
Also Tuesday, Bloomberg News, quoting three people familiar with the matter, said Takata began changing the composition of its air bags’ propellant mix to mitigate the effect of humidity after Honda Motor Co. announced the first recall related to the flaw in 2008.
Takata’s redesign to address the humidity problems, which hasn’t been reported before, may solve one of the mysteries of the auto-safety crisis. The company has repeatedly said its current products are safe, yet it hasn’t explained publicly the basis for its confidence. The majority of the vehicles recalled globally have air bags that were made before 2008.
“The thing that investors worry about the most is that we still don’t know how long these recalls will last and how bad the negative effects will be,” said Takashi Aoki, a Tokyo-based fund manager at Mizuho Asset Management Co. “Any news that they have managed to stabilize the situation and put the limit to risks from the recalls should be seen as positive because it would lift uncertainty, help determine the scope of the recall crisis.”
But action in 2008 to make the devices safer — while saying they had been safe all along — also could cause problems for Takata.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a a member of a Senate panel that governs transportation policy, has been pushing for a criminal investigation into Takata’s handling of the recalls.
“Takata should have been much more aggressive before now in protecting passengers through a national recall,” said Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. “In the meantime the Department of Justice should be taking appropriate action to investigate and impose penalties.”
The traffic safety agency has been pressuring Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and at least eight other automakers affected by the recalls to speed the repair process and work with other air-bag suppliers to obtain parts. The agency also has demanded that Takata turn over more documents and data from the devices that have been removed from the recalled cars.
The agency in February began fining Takata $14,000 a day for not completely answering questions about air-bag inflater production and company efforts to investigate the explosions. It said at the time that most of the 2.4 million pages of documents the company had produced didn’t actually relate to the agency’s specific inquiries.
The consent order puts the agency’s relationship with Takata on a new footing. While the potential for more fines is there as the formal investigation continues, the company and the regulator are now cooperating on testing, evaluating potential fixes, and coordinating repairs with automakers.
The agency become more aggressive since it was lambasted by Congress for failing to be more active before last year’s revelation that about 2.6 million General Motors Co. cars had a known ignition-switch defect that went unrecalled for years.
Modern air bags, credited by the traffice safety agency with saving more than 2,000 lives per year in the U.S., rely on chemical reactions to safely inflate in milliseconds when sensors detect a crash. Takata’s trouble has been linked by safety advocates and victims’ lawyers to the company’s choice of chemical propellant, a type of ammonium nitrate that can be rendered unstable by high humidity and moisture.
In a properly operating device, gas created by an electrical charge is released through holes in a metal canister to inflate the air bag. If the chemical propellant tablets are made improperly or have degraded because of moisture, they vaporize with too much pressure, potentially resulting in a burst canister that hurls metal and plastic shards.
Attorney Kevin Dean, who represents plaintiffs in several air bag lawsuits, praised the action Tuesday and said traffic safety agency officials had done “a 180-degree turn on how they’re handling these safety investigations.”
“All of us have to do fact-checking to make sure they’re getting every vehicle with ammonium nitrate-based inflators, because they’re subject to deterioration over time,” Dean said.
In addition to Honda and Nissan, Takata’s other affected customers in the U.S. market are units of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Toyota Motor Corp., Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Mazda Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.
Bloomberg News, The New York Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
▪ Automakers have been notifying owners of affected vehicles and will continue to do so.
▪ You can check your model by entering its Vehicle Identification Number online here. The list will expand, however, so periodic rechecking is recommended.