Washington — Federal regulators — who are considering taking formal control of the record-setting recalls of nearly 20 million vehicles with defective Takata air bags — may also require expanding callbacks to additional automakers or to more vehicles.
Twelve automakers have recalled cars with air bag inflators that can explode and send dangerous metal fragments flying. But NHTSA says it still doesn’t have the root cause of the problem that’s linked to eight deaths and nearly 100 injuries — and it doesn’t know how many recalled vehicles will need to have replacement air bags replaced again. It is trying to prioritize the vehicles that pose the greatest risk as it asked seven other automakers that haven’t recalled air bags for information.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said he will decide by Thanksgiving whether to take control of the recalls and whether to name an outside person to oversee them. “If there wasn’t coordination, this could be chaos,” Rosekind said at a public meeting Thursday in Washington that was called in order to decide whether to force the 12 automakers to speed up recall fixes.
He declined to say if NHTSA may expand the number of automakers covered — or the number of air bag types.
Stephen Ridella, director of the Office of Vehicle Crash Worthiness Research, said, “Given the size and complexity of this problem, and our current understanding of what seems to cause the problem, we may also need to expand the recalls in the future to cover even more vehicles.”
NHTSA said nearly 30 percent of recalled air bags in high-humidity areas have been repaired. The national recall completion rate is 22.5 percent. NHTSA is especially urging owners with older vehicles that have been kept in humid areas like Miami or the Gulf Coast to get repairs made immediately. Vehicles in those areas are at the highest risk of an inflator rupture.
NHTSA could order automakers to further speed up its recall processes for the highest-priority vehicles by getting more inflators, faster, to regions with the highest priority vehicles. This might require further expansion of the sources of replacement parts. NHTSA could also allow non-auto dealer repair shops to complete recalls if the agency doesn’t believe new car dealers can meet the demand.
The National Automobile Dealers Association said it opposed that step, which has never been used by NHTSA. “The obstacle to getting more vehicles fixed is the shortage of replacement parts, not a lack of access to servicing,” spokesman Jared Allen said.
The agency may name an outside expert to oversee the recalls.
NHTSA says it is aware of 121 air bag inflator ruptures — 89 in driver-side air bags and 32 in passenger air bags — with 98 alleged injuries. People have suffered severe cuts and lost an eye due to the ruptures. There are reports of eight deaths caused by a driver-side inflator.
NHTSA last month sent letters to seven other automakers that have used Takata air bags but haven’t issued recalls: Volkswagen AG, Tesla Motors Inc., Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz unit, Jaguar Land Rover, Suzuki Motor Corp., Volvo Trucks and Spartan Motors. The letters ask the automakers how many vehicles have Takata air bag inflators, and whether they are considering recalls.
NHTSA said Takata has done testing to mimic air bag deployments on 115,000 inflators that have been returned after recalls. Takata is now “now doing between 4,000 and 5,000 tests each week. Out of those 115,000 total tests, approximately 450 inflators have ruptured,” NHTSA said.
“Something that’s been seen in those tests but is not yet understood, is that driver inflators and some types of passenger inflators rupture at a rate of about one to two ruptures for every 1,000 ballistics tests — but other passenger types are rupturing at rates of 10 to 20 ruptures for every 1,000 ballistics tests, roughly 10 times more often,” said NHTSA’s Scott Yon.
Yon said no root cause has been found. But everyone agrees that “passenger inflators with long-term exposure to the (high-humidity) conditions, the propellant wafers are expanding and getting bigger as they age. As the wafers get bigger, they continue to work the way we expect, until they reach a certain size, at which point the ruptures start happening,” Yon said. Age and exposure to humidity help predict if an inflator will rupture.
NHTSA asked all 12 automakers that have recalled vehicles to do a risk assessment of the vehicles needing recalls.
The agency says production has increased of replacement inflators. “Takata estimates that it will be shipping over 2.8 million replacement kits to manufacturers this month alone” for worldwide use, NHTSA said, with at least 70 percent of inflators produced by other suppliers.
Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, asked Takata to explain if the company’s new air bag inflators pose a serious safety risk. The lawmakers’ letter comes after last week’s recall of about 400 GM vehicles for potentially defective side air bags and a June incident involving the rupture of a side air bag inflator in a 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan.
“We seek to gain a better understanding as to whether these incidents are connected to the defects associated with the previous recalls, as well as whether they reflect issues related to the newer ammonium-nitrate based inflators,” the senators wrote, demanding answers by Nov. 13.
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