WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- More than 18 months after Honda Motor Co. and other automakers announced recalls to fix exploding airbags, U.S. regulators are now asking the companies to speed up repairs.
In letters today to 10 automakers, including Honda, Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked for details about how the companies are reaching the 7.8 million affected consumers, and what is being done for people who are afraid to drive their cars.
The agency also plans weekly meetings with airbag maker Takata Motor Corp. beginning tomorrow, according to another letter.
“We urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to act aggressively and responsibly to ensure that the safety risk to vehicle owners is effectively and expeditiously addressed,” NHTSA’s top official, Deputy Administrator David Friedman, said in the letters.
NHTSA is investigating airbag inflators made by Takata that may malfunction if exposed to consistently high humidity and deploy with so much force that a metal part could rupture and strike occupants. The components are being examined to determine their role in at least four deaths involving Honda vehicles.
Toyota has gone so far to advise U.S. owners to keep passengers out of the front seats of several models until dealers can make repairs.
NHTSA itself is under scrutiny for how it’s been handling the recalls, which began in early 2013. The agency didn’t open a formal investigation until July 2014, and last week it issued a consumer advisory that contained erroneous information about the cars affected and directed people to an inoperable website.
Staff for the House Energy and Commerce Committee met this week with NHTSA officials about the recalls. Today, senior members of both parties on the committee asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of NHTSA’s ability to investigate defects involving new automotive technologies.
The audit request is mainly tied to NHTSA’s handling of the GM ignition-switch recalls earlier this year. The agency “lacked a comprehensive understanding of vehicle systems the agency is responsible for regulating,” six lawmakers, including Representatives Fred Upton of Michigan, a Republican, and Henry Waxman of California, a Democrat, wrote to the GAO.
NHTSA’s letter to Takata asked the company to “do all that is possible” to replace defective airbag inflators “quickly and responsibly.” It requested an outline of the Tokyo-based company’s capacity, an explanation of how it’s expanding production and whether other companies can provide replacement parts.
Takata, Autoliv Inc. and TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. are the three leading suppliers of airbag modules, accounting for about three-quarters of global sales combined. Autoliv also makes inflators, as does Tokyo-based Daicel Corp.
Any change in airbag suppliers made by automakers can be costly and typically require several years of lead time because of the need to fit different models of cars and pass extensive safety testing.
NHTSA asked Takata to confirm it has doubled its program for testing parts in the field. It asked the airbag supplier to be ready to discuss the questions at a meeting tomorrow and at weekly meetings after that.
In its letters to automakers, NHTSA is seeking data and test results that show the defect has been isolated to the recalled vehicles and more up-to-date numbers of the repairs made. NHTSA is also asking the companies to test replacement airbags and share those results.
In addition to Honda, Toyota and GM, the letters also were sent to Ford Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Fuji Heavy Industries’ Subaru, BMW AG and Chrysler Group.