Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is doubling the recall of faulty air bags made by Japanese supplier Takata by an estimated 35 million to 40 million.
It could take years for all of the air bags to be replaced. And some question whether the embattled company can survive the latest blow.
The decision to call back more air bags was announced Wednesday after the safety agency confirmed the root cause behind the inflators’ propensity to rupture, especially in humid climates. Flying shrapnel from exploding Takata inflators has been tied to 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries in the United States, and at least one more death outside the U.S.
The latest recalls are in addition to the 28.8 million inflators previously recalled, which already was the largest automotive callback in U.S. history. The expansions will take place in five phases between May 2016 and December 2019. The expansions mean all Takata air bags with an ammonium nitrate-based propellant that don’t have a chemical drying agent will be recalled.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said of the expanded recall, “We are now talking about a large percentage of the air bag inflators out there in the U.S. vehicle population.
“The Takata air bag recall, which we are more than doubling today, is the largest and most complex recall in U.S. history,” he said. “This issue is urgent.”
He said the expansion is mostly of passenger-side inflators, which are less risky because of the way they are designed to deploy.
Specific models in the latest recalls were not released Wednesday. But NHTSA officials said three additional carmakers are included: Tesla, Jaguar Land Rover and Fisker. That brings to 17 the number of vehicle manufacturers affected by air bag recalls, including including Fiat Chrysler, Honda and Toyota.
It could be a few weeks before a full list of affected vehicles is available. Carmakers must inventory which models and model-years had the faulty inflators installed.
Only 8.2 million of the nearly 29 million air bags that were originally called back had been repaired by April 22, according to the NHTSA website.
Agency officials said the risk for malfunction is greatest for cars that are older than six years, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said it is still important for drivers of all affected vehicles to get them fixed.
“The acceleration of this recall is based on scientific evidence and will protect all Americans from air bag inflators that may become unsafe,” he said.
NHTSA reviewed the findings of three independent investigations and confirmed the findings on the root cause of inflator ruptures: A combination of time, humidity and fluctuating high temperatures contribute to degradation of ammonium nitrate propellant. That can cause the propellant to explode with excessive force, rupturing the inflator and throwing pieces of metal and plastic at drivers and passengers.
Takata said in a statement that it was unaware of any ruptures — in the field or in testing — of inflators covered by the new order.
Earlier Wednesday, Honda Motor Co. said that two people in Malaysia died in recent traffic crashes in which Takata air bag inflators exploded with too much force, but authorities have yet to determine the exact cause of either death. If the air bags are to blame, that would bring the death toll to 13.
Both crashes involved drivers’ air bag inflators in older Honda City cars. The automaker says cars in both crashes were under recall, but repairs had not been made. Both cars had inflators that the company does not use in the U.S. or Canada, but are used in other countries and largely in Asia, the company said.
When Rosekind was asked if he was concerned this might put Takata out of business, he said NHTSA always makes decisions based on safety.
A doubling of the recall is a devastating blow to Takata. But corporate strategist Scott Upham doesn’t believe it will be a knockout.
“It’s always been the opinion of industry insiders that Takata was too big to fail, but I think they’re hedging now as a result of the doubling of this air bag recall,” said Upham, founder, president and CEO of Valient Market Research Inc.
Upham believes the Japanese auto supplier will eventually have to seek bankruptcy protection but he expects the company to re-emerge as a smaller company that is focused on some of its other core products like seat belts, electronics and maybe air bag modules without the inflators.
“That is one of the most profound drops in our lifetime of automotive supply without any type of merger or acquisition type explanation,” Upham said. “They’re losing business hand over fist.”
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said it could be difficult for Takata to bounce back.
“The scope of the recall far exceeds any previous automotive defect and likely will take years to fully address,” he said. “Affected consumers can expect a wait time from a few months to a few years, a troubling time frame given the potentially deadly nature of these air bags. It’s hard to imagine Takata surviving this recall, but if the company fails it will only lengthen the time it takes to resolve this issue.”
U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, released a statement saying: “This expanded recall of millions more Takata air bags reflects what we have long known about ammonium nitrate being inherently dangerous as an air bag propellant and underscores the need for an immediate recall of all of these potentially lethal air bags.”
Takata has publicly apologized for the faulty air bags amid congressional inquiries into its handling of the defective parts. It reached a $70 million settlement with NHTSA over the recalls.
Detroit News Staff Writer Michael Wayland and the Associated Press contributed.
Has your car been recalled?
You can find out if your car has been recalled for defective air bags — or any other problem — at the NHTSA website, www.safercar.gov. It likely will be several weeks before vehicles that were recalled Wednesday are in the database.
Owners of used cars can check the same website to see if their vehicle has been repaired. You’ll need the VIN number that’s on the dashboard, just behind the windshield on the driver’s side.