The auto industry is staring down the barrel of a massive, lingering airbag recall that could at any moment blow up in its face.
In a sense, the industry shares that position with drivers and passengers in 17 million U.S. vehicles recalled because of potentially defective airbags made by supplier Takata Corp.
Every time people get in those vehicles, there is a tiny but real chance the airbags intended to protect them in a collision could malfunction and spray them with lethal metal shards. Six deaths have been linked to Takata airbag malfunctions.
For years, automaker and regulator responses were largely inadequate and painfully slow to unfold. Throughout, Takata executives have been notably taciturn, reluctant to share information with regulators and the public.
The result: a needlessly slow response to a widespread safety issue.
Seven years after the first Takata airbags were recalled and nine months after federal regulators opened a probe into Takata airbag-equipped vehicles sold in humid regions, only a small number of affected vehicles have been fixed.
The industry response is improving. But producing enough airbag inflators to resolve even the current recall campaigns is still far away.
Takata makes only 450,000 replacement inflators a month. At that pace, it would take at least three years to match demand. But production will soon accelerate.
Takata plans to double replacement production to 900,000 a month by September. Three other airbag suppliers also are adding capacity to increase inflator production.
Takata has hired an independent company to help its testing process. Ten automakers with Takata airbag recalls have formed a consortium and hired an independent tester. Those steps will significantly shorten the repair line for the current count of recalled vehicles. But the industry may not be out of the woods yet.
Alarmingly, despite years of testing, Takata claims not to know the root cause of the problem. Its replacements use ammonium nitrate, a propellant other manufacturers do not.
Takata insists the compound is safe. But CEO Shigehisa Takada admitted that age and exposure to heat and high humidity "are significant factors" in inflators that failed.
What if independent testing finds Takata's propellant is the root cause of the defects? How long would it take to replace all the replacement inflators already installed? Would all other ammonium nitrate Takata airbags also be recalled?
Public safety must be the paramount concern. The auto industry and regulators must work to solve the immediate airbag recall crisis as rapidly as possible. And both must prepare to intensify efforts if the current recall expands.