Takata recall poses dilemma for U.S. backing untested fix
DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- Takata Corp.’s latest recall leaves U.S. regulators with a dilemma: swap defective airbags with parts that may be no safer than the original ones, or shoulder automakers with replacing 34 million vehicles.
For now, Mark Rosekind, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is favoring a fix over the junk yard. In outlining the arrangement covering models from 11 automakers, Rosekind said the long-term safety of the replacement airbags hasn’t been proven, so there’s no guarantee they won’t need to be repaired again.
“Right now, we know that the ones that are going in are safer,” Rosekind said in a briefing Tuesday. “The concern is, are they safe over the long term? That has yet to be determined.
"And just to be very direct, that does mean that some people might have to go back for a second if we find out that current remedies need to be enhanced, then yes, consumers might have to go back for a second time.”
The agreement with Takata could become the largest industrywide recall action in U.S. automotive history and among the most complex NHTSA has ever undertaken. Months of parallel government and industry investigations have failed to turn up a root cause. In the Tuesday agreement, Takata released four defect reports describing separate flaws in different sets of vehicles.
The defect has been linked to five deaths in the U.S. and one in Malaysia. Rosekind told reporters that owners should continue to drive their vehicles and keep in contact with their dealer to get it fixed as soon as possible.
‘Hoping and praying’
“He doesn’t have a choice -- he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Scott Upham, president of Valient Market Research, in Rochester, N.Y., said about Rosekind. “What other choice does he have other than basically pulling 30 million vehicles off the road, and that’s not feasible. What they’re really doing is hoping and praying” that the replacements are better.
That’s because replacing the airbags with newer models of a similar design -- sources told Bloomberg that Takata may have made some changes to the airbags' design in 2008 -- may only buy owners time, not fully protect them, said Upham, who has studied airbags for two decades as an analyst.
The ammonium nitrate propellant used in the airbags can degrade in cases of extreme temperature variation, such as in Florida, where the interior of the car can be 180 degrees during the day and 40 degrees at night, Upham said. If that happens, it can explode with too much force and break apart the airbag canister, spraying shrapnel into the passenger compartment, he said.
“We are confident that our new airbags are safe, and our testing continues to show that the inflator issues primarily apply to older products in high humidity areas,” Takata said in an e-mail Tuesday.
NHTSA has the authority to order automakers to replace vehicles that can’t be repaired. The 34 million estimated vehicles with the defective parts are equal to about 13 percent of the 258 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads.
NHTSA’s agreement with Takata will lead to a faster fix, because there will be better coordination between the government and the companies, Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesman for the agency, said in an e-mail. Testing of faulty parts and evaluating proposed remedies will also go faster, he said.
“Our goal is a safe airbag in every vehicle as quickly as possible,” Trowbridge said.
He declined to comment on whether NHTSA’s deliberations, including whether it considered forcing automakers to buy back vehicles or issue a stop-driving order.
Recalling models when a fix doesn’t work isn’t unprecedented. This year alone, more than 2.8 million Acura, Dodge, Jeep, Honda, Pontiac, Chrysler and Toyota vehicles were called back for a second repair in two separate actions after it was determined the first fix wasn’t sufficient.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx pointed out that the latest Takata recall involves 11 auto manufacturers and numerous parts suppliers other than Takata. The total number of vehicles recalled is about double the number of vehicles sold in the U.S. each year.
A recall of 34 million is about half the 64 million recalled in 2014, the most ever in a single year. About 8.8 million cars and trucks have been recalled so far this year, according to NHTSA data.
“It’s fair to say this is probably the most complex consumer safety recall in U.S. history,” Foxx said at the briefing.
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