NHTSA opens investigation; U.S. dealers will be told to replace suspect inflators from 2013 recall

Toyota adds 650,000 vehicles to Takata airbag recall in Japan

NHTSA opens investigation; U.S. dealers will be told to replace suspect inflators from 2013 recall

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TOKYO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Japanese airbag maker Takata Corp.'s quality problems deepened today after Toyota recalled 650,000 more vehicles in Japan, and the supplier cautioned further fixes may be needed.

The latest recall brought to 7 million the total number of cars equipped with Takata airbags to be called back worldwide over the last five years.

Takata, the world's No. 2 manufacturer of auto safety equipment, said there could be more recalls from other automakers because of problems tracking potential defects with airbag inflators that date back over a decade.

The Tokyo-based auto supplier said it had discovered record-keeping errors at a plant in Mexico where potentially faulty airbag inflators were made in 2001 and 2002.

In 2013, carmakers including Toyota, Honda, Nissan and BMW recalled about 3.6 million vehicles because of flaws in Takata airbag inflators that could cause them to explode in an accident.

In an unusual step, Toyota also said it would instruct its dealers in the United States and other overseas markets to begin replacing suspect Takata inflators on all of the vehicles covered by last year's recall. Previously, the automaker had asked its dealers to inspect the airbags and only replace those that were judged to be defective.

"We have judged that it is more certain to replace everything," Toyota spokesman Naoki Sumino said.

Takata did not disclose how much it expected today’s Toyota recall would cost, but last year's recall cost the supplier $300 million

Previously, Takata told U.S. safety regulators it improperly stored chemicals and botched the manufacture of the explosive propellants used to inflate air bags. It also kept inadequate quality-control records, making it impossible to identify vehicles with potentially defective inflators. 

NHTSA involved

Meanwhile, in the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said today it has opened a preliminary evaluation of about 1.1 million vehicles built with Takata airbag modules from model years 2002 to 2006. Cars from Chrysler, Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota are included.

The agency said it knows of six incidents, all of them in Florida and Puerto Rico, in which a frontal airbag ruptured. Three of those incidents were discovered through complaints to NHTSA, each of which described minor injuries to the driver or passenger whose airbag ruptured. The other three were disclosed by Takata and Toyota.

In an investigative document today, NHTSA suggested it suspects the “high absolute humidity climate” of Florida and Puerto Rico may have played a role in the ruptures. The agency said it is opening its investigation “to collect additional information from the supplier and vehicle manufacturers to better understand the cause and scope of the potential safety defect and ensure that all affected vehicles are recalled.”

A preliminary evaluation is NHTSA’s first step toward ordering a recall. Once that evaluation is complete, the agency either begins an engineering analysis or closes the inquiry. Based on the outcome of the engineering analysis, a vehicle may be recalled or the inquiry may be closed with no further action.

Years of problems

The supplier has been grappling with quality problems with its airbags for the last several years.

Previously, Takata told U.S. safety regulators that it improperly stored chemicals and botched the manufacture of the explosive propellants used to inflate airbags.

The company has said it kept inadequate quality control records, which made it impossible to identify vehicles with potentially defective and dangerous airbag inflators.

The Takata-related recall in 2013 was the largest airbag-related recall in history and came after a series of recalls, accidents and at least two deaths allegedly caused by faulty airbags.

Toyota said it was expanding a recall it announced in April 2013 that involved 2.14 million vehicles manufactured between 2000 and 2004. The serial numbers Takata provided for potentially flawed inflators had been incomplete, Toyota said.

Toyota's expanded recall comes as rival General Motors faces scrutiny over why it took more than a decade to come to terms with ignition switch problems that resulted in at least 13 deaths.

Others investigate

Honda, Nissan and Mazda also said they were investigating whether they needed to recall more vehicles due to problems tracking faulty Takata parts. BMW said it was not aware of any impact on its vehicles. Chrysler said its engineers were analyzing the issue and that the automaker is cooperating with NHTSA's probe.

In January, Takata began investigating whether there were other vehicles with potentially faulty inflators not covered by the previous recalls after being contacted by Toyota, company spokesman Toyohiro Hishikawa said.

Toyota spokesman Ryo Sakai said the automaker had been notified of one case in which a defective front passenger-side airbag inflator caused a seat cover to burn and two cases where the inflator ruptured when the airbag deployed.

Toyota vehicles covered by the recall include the Corolla and Camry sedans, and Tundra trucks.

The inflators under investigation were manufactured between September 2001 and September 2002 at Takata’s Mexico plant, Takata said. Some of the explosive wafers used in the airbag inflator may have been exposed to excessive moisture or pressed into shape with too little force, it said.

That could cause the inflator to explode when the airbag is deployed, potentially sending bits of shrapnel into the vehicle, the previous investigation found.

It was not immediately clear how many Takata airbag inflators could have defects. Takata has notified other automakers besides Toyota about the issue, Hishikawa said. He declined to name those companies.

Takata will be supplying the inflators that will be used as replacements in the Toyota recall, Hishikawa said.

The Takata problems may benefit rivals like Sweden's Autoliv, where executives have noticed an increased focus on quality among clients since its Japanese competitor's first airbag recall last year.

Separately, the company pleaded guilty on Dec. 5, 2013, for its involvement in a conspiracy to fix the price of seat belts in the United States and was sentenced to a criminal fine of $71.3 million. Five of its former executives have been charged in the scandal. 

Takata ranks No. 44 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers with worldwide original-equipment automotive parts sales of $4.86 billion during its 2012 fiscal year.

Gabe Nelson and Automotive News staff contributed to this report.

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