Washington DC - Takata is to double the recall of US cars using its potentially deadly airbags to a record nearly 34 million vehicles, admitting for the first time - after refusing for years - that its airbags installed in the cars of 11 major manufacturers are defective.
Announcing the ectended recall on Tuesday, US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said the problem airbags had been responsible for “at least” five deaths, but admitted it could take years to get enough replacement airbag inflators - the cause of the problem - for all the cars equipped with Takata airbags.
“The department of transportation is taking the proactive steps necessary to ensure that defective inflators are replaced with safe ones as quickly as possible, and that the highest risks are addressed first,” Foxx said.
“We will not stop our work until every airbag is replaced.”
The recall, the largest in US auto history, aims to replace problematic inflators in the airbags which can cause them to deploy with explosive force, sending potentially lethal shrapnel into drivers and passengers.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind said the automakers that installed the Takata airbags in their cars and trucks - including, among others Honda, Toyota, General Motors, BMW and Ford - would now have to announce specific vehicle recalls.
“From the very beginning, our goal has been simple: a safe air bag in every vehicle,” Rosekind said. “The steps we're taking today represent significant progress toward that goal.”
Setting the expanded recall in motion, Takata officially agreed in a consent order with the NHTSA that a defect related to the inflators could lead to “over-aggressive combustion” that could cause the body of the inflator to rupture. In that event, “metal fragments could pass through the airbag cushion material, which may result in injury or death to vehicle occupants.”
The issue came up in 2014 during congressional hearings in which Takata executives appeared evasive and uncooperative. The NHTSA began fining the company $14 000 (R170 000) a day in February 2015 to pressure it to supply company documentation on internal probes into airbag issues dating back more than a decade.
Rosekind said the accumulated penalties have topped $1 million, but the daily fine has been suspended since Takata “stepped up” to cooperate with NHTSA investigators.
Five deaths in the United States, and one elsewhere, have been linked to the airbag problem and car companies have already recalled millions of vehicles.
But Rosekind acknowledged two key problems. First is that the cause of the inflator explosions is not completely understood. Investigators know that hot, humid weather is prone to causing the problem, but that does not explain all the incidents.
Secondly, the supply of replacement inflators remains small, and increasing production has been slow.
“In the long term, this is going to be very complicated,” Rosekind said. “It could be some years.”