"Before May 19, there was denial of a defect; there was mostly a focus on root cause; there was concern about the supply chain, whether the remedy even worked or not," NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told the House panel on Tuesday, June 2.
"Now, NHTSA is in the driver seat."
And it's stomping on the gas. According to an outline of its recall plan published Friday, June 5, in the Federal Register, NHTSA is considering an order to speed the recalls by enlisting more suppliers to make replacement parts. The actions underscore Rosekind's emphasis on getting recalled inflators replaced quickly, even as the search for a root cause continues.
As the agency sees it, replacing a defective Takata airbag with a newer one, even if it must be replaced again, would do more to improve the safety of the U.S. vehicle fleet immediately than waiting to determine a root cause and a long-term solution.
NHTSA's recall plan seeks to send parts first to the hottest, most-humid areas of the country, where risk of rupture is seen as greatest, and it has the authority to oversee testing of replacement parts to ensure they will be safe long term, agency officials have said.
"The actions we have taken in the last several days are designed to allow us to act regardless of the uncertainty about the root cause," said NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge.
Takata's shift on ammonium nitrate should sharpen the focus of the root-cause investigation, which is under way at Takata and among a consortium of automakers.
At last week's House hearing, Kevin Kennedy, executive vice president of Takata's North American affiliate, was grilled for more than an hour over the company's continued use of ammonium nitrate as the primary propellant in its inflators, including in some of the replacement airbags it's supplying now.
Chemical experts have said that when exposed to moisture and high heat, ammonium nitrate is inherently vulnerable to degradation that can lead to violent explosions.
Kennedy said the propellant is safe when manufactured and packaged properly. But he acknowledged that the chemical is a factor in the rupture of the older airbags. He said the company plans to "transition" from ammonium nitrate and is ramping up production of airbags that use guanidine nitrate, an explosive compound used as a propellant by competitors such as TRW Automotive and Autoliv Inc.
Takata also will discontinue one of the propellant packaging designs that had a high rate of ruptures.
None of Takata's competitors uses ammonium nitrate. And NHTSA will be leaning on them heavily as it seeks to swap out defective airbags.
In its outline, NHTSA said it expects to consult with airbag makers including ARC Automotive Inc., Autoliv Americas, Key Safety Systems, Toyoda Gosei North America, TRW and Daicel Group to see whether and how quickly they can add production capacity for replacement parts.
Kennedy testified that rival suppliers, including TRW and Daicel, already supplied roughly half of the replacement Takata inflators shipped in May.
He said that rivals' share of those part shipments should increase to 70 percent by year end.