WASHINGTON -- After months of pressure from U.S. regulators, Takata Corp. acknowledged that its airbag inflators in nearly 34 million vehicles are defective -- a decision that sharply expands the scope of the airbag crisis and could prompt one of the largest recalls for a safety defect in U.S. history.
Tataka’s acknowledgement marks a reversal from its long refusal to declare that its inflators are defective.
Since 2008 -- when the first vehicles were recalled for Takata airbag inflators that could rupture in a crash and spray vehicle occupants with metal shards -- the supplier has blamed the problem on a series of manufacturing and material-handling errors at company plants that it says it had corrected over time.
It also marks a major victory for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has faced broad criticism that it acted too slowly and timidly on the Takata recall and the recall last year of defective ignition switches by General Motors.
U.S. regulators began stepping up pressure on Takata last year to declare its inflators defective as reports of injuries and deaths caused by the faulty parts grew and its recalls mushroomed to affect millions of vehicles.
“Up until now Takata has refused to acknowledge that their airbags are defective,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a press conference to announce the widened action. “That changes today.”
Details to come
The expansion affects vehicles made by BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.
Automakers are expected to detail the makes and models of vehicles affected in voluntary recalls to be filed in the coming days, U.S. officials said at a press conference today. The number of recalled vehicles could also change as new information becomes available, they said.
About 16 million of the 33.8 million vehicles covered by today’s announcement represent a nationwide expansion of recalls for passenger-side inflators that had been limited to high-humidity areas. Nationwide recalls for driver-side Takata airbags will also be expanded to about 17 million vehicles from more than 9 million.
The flow of replacement parts will be prioritized based upon risk, as part of a legal process that NHTSA announced today. Priority is expected to go to older vehicles located in high-humidity regions, as long-term exposure to hot, muggy climates is believed to be a factor behind the inflator explosions.
Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said his agency would conduct its own testing, and validate testing by other parties, to ensure that replacement parts are "completely safe.”
The process, he acknowledged, “could take years.”
It will also make replacing the defective airbags an even more daunting task for the auto industry, which is already grappling with limited supplies of replacement parts as Takata, as well as rivals like Daicel, TRW, and Autoliv, ramp up production capacity for replacement parts.
In a consent agreement with the agency, Takata also pledged to cooperate with “all future regulatory actions that NHTSA undertakes in its ongoing investigation and oversight of Takata,” according to a U.S. Transportation Department statement.
As part of that consent agreement, NHTSA has halted the $14,000 a day in fines it has been imposing on Takata since February for allegedly failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation. No additional fines were announced today, but future fines are possible depending on the outcome of the agency’s ongoing investigation into the Takata defects.
Testing by Takata, automakers and independent researchers hasn’t yet established a definitive root cause of the malfunction. But NHTSA said its analysis of test results points to exposure to moisture over a long period of time as a factor.
Shigehisa Takada, Chairman and CEO of Takata Corp., said in a statement: “We are pleased to have reached this agreement with NHTSA, which presents a clear path forward to advancing safety and restoring the trust of automakers and the driving public. We have worked extensively with NHTSA and our automaker customers over the past year to collect and analyze a multitude of testing data in an effort to support actions that work for all parties and, most importantly, advance driver safety. We are committed to continuing to work closely with NHTSA and our automaker customers to do everything we can to advance the safety of drivers.”
Takada said the potential for long-term degradation of the airbag inflators wasn’t within the scope of testing prescribed by automakers.
Honda said in a statement that many of the inflators covered under Takata’s defect acknowledgement have already been included in previous Honda safety improvement campaigns or recalls. Honda said it’s reviewing the information released today to determine what new actions may be required to further ensure the safety of our customers.
“Our focus remains on the safety and security of our customers," Toyota said in a statement. "We’re currently evaluating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s industry-wide announcement today and will work with the agency to respond as necessary.”
Takata’s admission and deal with NHTSA was applauded by U.S. lawmakers. U.S. Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., loudly criticized the decision to limit many of the Takata recalls to high-humidity regions, and praised NHTSA for expanding the callbacks nationwide.
“We are pleased that NHTSA is taking these long overdue steps to protect drivers and passengers and that Takata must cooperate with the ongoing investigation into this tragedy,” the two lawmakers wrote in a joint statement.
“NHTSA must ensure that the necessary parts are manufactured more quickly, and consumers deserve to know immediately whether or not the new parts are also defective, possibly requiring them to have their airbags fixed in another five years.”