U.S. safety regulators are seeking to expand regional recalls of faulty driver’s-side airbags made by Takata Corp. into a nationwide campaign, prompting the supplier to warn of potential parts shortages.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it took the action after becoming aware of two accidents involving ruptured driver-side airbags outside a band of high-humidity states, mainly in the South, where regional recalls by automakers have been focused.
“One incident is an anomaly, but two are a trend,” David Friedman, deputy administrator of the agency, said on a conference call with reporters.
Friedman said NHTSA was made aware of the latest incident, which occurred in North Carolina in August, two weeks ago.
In a statement late Wednesday, Takata questioned the need for an expanded recall and warned of a potential shortage of inflators -- setting the stage for a battle with federal regulators.
The faulty airbags can explode with too much force and spray shrapnel at occupants, a problem that has been linked to at least five deaths and numerous injuries.
The exchange comes two days before Friedman and executives from Takata, Honda and Chrysler are scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on the escalating crisis.
The government this week contacted vehicle manufacturers and the Japanese safety systems supplier about expanding the recall, said Friedman.
The expanded recalls would affect vehicles produced in model year 2008 or before, Friedman said. NHTSA confirmed that the nationwide effort would involve Ford, Honda, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW vehicles. Other automakers could be added later.
"We are requesting additional data from Takata and auto manufacturers to determine the full scope of this issue," a NHTSA spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
Friedman said he did not yet know how many vehicles would be involved in a nationwide recall, or an exact list of models.
"We are still checking on the details (of NHTSA's demand), but if (an expanded) recall is needed, we will cooperate with regulators and car makers to address the issue," Takata said.
If Takata fails to take action, Friedman said his agency will step in.
“If they do refuse to act, then we will demand a recall and issue an agency order to force them to act,” Friedman said.
Takata warned Wednesday that a nationwide recall “could potentially divert replacement airbags from where they’re needed, putting lives at risk.”
In its statement, Takata noted that nearly 1,000 passenger and driver-side airbags had been tested outside the regional recall area, and that none had ruptured.
However, the company did not address NHTSA’s report of a ruptured airbag during an accident in North Carolina.
In September, Takata told NHTSA that its plant in Monclova, Mexico, could produce 1.47 million replacement inflators by February -- far short of the numbers needed.
The company subsequently agreed to install two new assembly lines at Monclova but has not issued a new production forecast.
On Wednesday, Friedman said the agency might ask rival suppliers -- such as Autoliv and TRW -- to produce replacement inflators. The CEOs of both companies have confirmed that they may do so, if necessary.
Recalls of more than 10 million U.S. vehicles by at least 10 carmakers have left drivers unsure about whether they're at risk.
Safety advocates have blamed NHTSA for not doing enough in its probe of Takata, while a federal grand jury has sent the company a subpoena to turn over documents and explain the defects with its safety devices.
Automakers contacted about NHTSA's declaration said they would continue to work with the agency but stopped short of saying they would immediately agree to a national recall.
“We just learned about this new request from NHTSA and are quickly evaluating it,” Ford said in a statement. “We will continue to cooperate with NHTSA, as we have been, and will take the appropriate action as expeditiously as we can.”
Dan Ryan, vice president of government and public affairs at Mazda, said the company needed to review today's information from NHTSA and has yet to decide whether it will expand its regional recalls.
"We’ll have to investigate and work with NHTSA,” Ryan said.
Honda, in a statement sent by spokesman Chris Martin, said it may expand its recalls “as warranted” while cooperating with NHTSA’s continuing investigation. Honda's campaigns have covered Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Chrysler said it is “now examining the General Order" and pledged to "remain transparent with NHTSA about this issue.”
BMW could not be reached for comment.
The agency doesn’t feel it’s necessary to order a recall of the passenger-side airbags because they are designed and mounted differently than drivers’-side airbags, Friedman said.
Investigators have tested 845 passenger airbags outside the primary recall region. None failed, Friedman said.
However, the agency has asked all automakers to provide any test data that they have. If that information demonstrates that passenger airbags could fail outside the primary recall region, then NHTSA will expand the recall.
In addition to that, there may be expanded recalls within the primary recall region. Honda, Toyota and Nissan have announced recalls that cover the entire region, but some other automakers have announced recalls within a more limited area, Friedman noted.
"Now we want all automakers to provide test data and explain why they are not expanding their recall to the full regional area,” he said.
The expanded recall will be a likely topic of discussion at the Thursday Senate hearing, to be led by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. The witnesses will include:
• Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president of global quality assurance at Takata;
• Scott Kunselman, senior vice president and head vehicle safety and regulatory compliance for Chrysler Group.
• Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America.
• Stephanie Erdman, a Takata airbag defect victim from Florida.
Ryan Beene, Reuters, and Bloomberg contributed to this report.