WASHINGTON -- Independent repair shops could soon step on what has always been a franchised dealer's exclusive turf: recall repairs.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials last week said they see a possible role for nondealer service shops to help with the mammoth task of replacing the 23 million defective Takata airbag inflators spread across 19 million U.S. vehicles made by 12 manufacturers.
Such a move would be unprecedented, as only franchised new-car dealers are currently authorized to perform recall repairs. It also would add another layer of complexity and risk to what NHTSA is already calling the most complex auto safety recall effort in U.S. history.
Still, the fact that it's under consideration reflects the urgency with which NHTSA views the inflator recall effort and a recognition by the agency that it may require extraordinary measures to complete it.
"If dealers for a vehicle manufacturer are unable to keep up with the demand for replacements even though plenty of parts are available, we may consider allowing repair shops or other facilities to complete recall repairs," Stephen Ridella, director of vehicle crashworthiness research at NHTSA, said at the Thursday, Oct. 22, briefing. "While this is something specifically allowed in the law, these inflator parts are complex and unique ... only someone with specialized training should replace these parts."
Involving independent repair shops won't be easy, says Aaron Jacoby, a partner at the law firm Arent Fox who specializes in automotive matters.
Takata's supplier contracts, which are regulated by law, dictate that Takata work only with authorized dealers of their automaker clients and could prohibit sales of replacement parts directly to independent auto shops. Additionally, manufacturers set standards and provide recall repair instructions only to their dealers.
"There are numerous statutory, practical, business and contract hurdles to overcome that would negate any perceived benefit of going forward with such a plan," Jacoby said.
The National Automobile Dealers Association said NHTSA's priority should be adding supply capacity, not repair capacity. "Every dealer of the affected brands has the expertise, tools, training, and capacity necessary to fix impacted vehicles, and they are expeditiously doing so as soon as they take delivery of replacement parts," NADA spokesman Jared Allen said in a statement.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind acknowledged the many obstacles and risks, telling reporters last week that bringing independent shops into the mix "would be opening up exactly that concern about the quality of repairs, and that would be one of the things that we would have to look at before we could implement that aspect" of NHTSA's authority.
Still, NHTSA officials said, the pace of progress is far too slow given the millions of cars with the suspect inflators and the high risk of bodily harm when a Takata inflator ruptures. The defective airbag inflators, which can explode in a crash and send out a spray of metal fragments, have been linked to eight deaths and about 100 injuries.
After a sharp expansion of the inflator recalls over the last year, the repair completion rate as of Oct. 9 was just 22.5 percent nationally, NHTSA officials said at the briefing. In high-humidity areas, mostly along the Gulf of Mexico, where the risk of a rupture is viewed to be greatest, about 29.5 percent of the recalled vehicles have been repaired. Many fixed vehicles are merely getting newer sets of the same inflators and may need to be repaired again later, NHTSA officials said.
Expanding the repair network is one of eight possible actions that NHTSA officials are contemplating to speed completion of the Takata recalls, with final decisions due from Rosekind by Thanksgiving.
For example, NHTSA may require automakers to speed their recalls for vehicles that pose the highest risk of a rupture, which NHTSA says are vehicles that are 5 to 10 years old and have spent several years in hot, muggy climates. Such an order could include a directive to expand their sources for procuring replacement inflators.
Takata is shipping about 2.8 million replacement airbag kits -- including inflator components from various manufacturers -- a month to dealers for recall repairs in the U.S. and other markets.
American Honda Motor Co. says it has repaired almost 40 percent of the 9.9 million recalled Takata inflators contained in about 6.3 million U.S. vehicles. Honda and Acura dealers are replacing an average of 24,000 airbag units daily using replacement inflators coming from Takata as well as rival firms TRW, Daicel and Autoliv. Its dealers are "well positioned to handle incoming demand," the company said, and it's focusing on getting owners to bring their cars in.
Spokesman Chris Martin said: "If we reach a point where our dealers are unable to handle ongoing repair volume, Honda will explore all available options to ensure the safety of our customers."