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Washington — Ten major automakers are close to hiring a former top official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to run a joint effort to test Takata air bags.

David Kelly, who was acting NHTSA administrator under President George W. Bush, is expected to be hired in the coming days to assist the auto industry effort to understand more about the growing number of vehicles recalled for for air bags that can explode and propel metal fragments that can seriously injure or kill drivers and passengers, three people briefed on the matter said.

The automakers said in a joint statement, "Automakers continue to make progress toward finding a well-qualified testing firm and supplier to address the technical issues with Takata air bag inflators ."

Takata said in a statement it is working with the automakers. "We have been in contact with the consortium of automakers at their request and have agreed to support them in any way possible. Takata is also conducting extensive testing and has engaged top automotive engineers and scientists from around the world to assist in evaluating inflator ruptures and discovering the root cause of these issues."

Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Detroit's Big Three automakers and five other automakers have recalled at least 14.6 million vehicles since 2013. The recalls have prompted serious concerns in Congress and among the public and federal regulators.

On Friday, Honda said it has confirmed a Takata air bag ruptured in a 2002 Honda Accord on Jan. 18 in a fatal crash that appears to be the sixth death linked to exploding air bags in Honda vehicles. At least 64 injuries have also been reported, including 52 Honda injuries.

Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. has also created an outside panel led by former top U.S. officials to review its practices.

The Toyota-led group — which has had numerous meetings in the last two months — said in early December that its first goal is to select an independent, well-qualified expert to investigate technical issues. "The objective of seeking an outside expert to test these inflators is to promote the safety, security and peace of mind for all customers," the statement said. "Based on the initial organizing meeting today, we feel we have positive momentum and look forward to the next steps of the process."

The automakers are still working to hire an engineering firm.

Kelly was named acting NHTSA chief in August 2008 and served as the top official until January 2009. Kelly, who is president of Storm King Strategies and the executive director of the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers, declined to comment Wednesday.

Big questions remain: What is the root cause of the failures? Are replacement bags going to develop the same problems in five or 10 years? Is humidity's effect on air bag propellant the key problem? Although most exploding inflators have been in high-humidity areas such as Florida, that hasn't always been the case.

Automakers also face the reality that it could take Takata years to make enough replacement parts. Honda expanded its recall by 2.6 million vehicles in December to at least 7.7 million since 2013. It has contracted with two other suppliers to build additional inflators, but they won't be ready for six months.

Some automakers have expressed some frustration with Takata, which has refused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's demands to expand its driver side air bag recall nationwide.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman has hired an outside engineering consultant to supplement testing of Takata air bag inflators to find the root cause of problems.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in New York is investigating Takata and a federal grand jury has subpoenaed documents from the company.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in December that many key questions remain. "No one can say for sure that the replacement parts are any safer than the originals," Upton said. "What should I say to the mom in Michigan who asks me if she and her family are safe behind the wheel?"

On Saturday, NHTSA said four automakers had agreed to a new recall for more than 2.3 million vehicles for a electronic defect that may cause air bags to deploy inadvertently — covering 1 million vehicles with Takata air bags.

The new recalls will provide vehicle owners with a new remedy after the manufacturers' original attempts to fix the electronic defect in a series of recalls in 2012, 2013 and 2014 wasn't "fully effective," NHTSA said. NHTSA said it has reports of about 40 vehicles in which air bags deployed unexpectedly after receiving the original recall fix.

The new recall covers 928,000 2002-2003 Jeep Liberty, 2002-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Viper vehicles worldwide; 405,000 2003-2004 Honda Odyssey and 2003 Acura MDX and 1.01 million 2003-2004 Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix, Toyota Avalon and Pontiac Vibe. The Pontiac Vibe vehicles were built by Toyota for General Motors Co. at a now closed joint operation.

NHTSA said owners should take the issue seriously — especially because about 1 million Toyota and Honda vehicles involved in these new recalls are also subject to a recall related to defective Takata air bags that may deploy with enough explosive force to cause injury or even death to vehicle occupants.

NHTSA said because of the dangers involved in an inadvertent air bag deployment, "and because some of the vehicles involved may also have defective Takata air bags, NHTSA urges consumers who were covered by the original recalls to take their vehicles to their local dealer for the original remedy. That remedy significantly reduces the chance of an air bag deployment that presents a safety risk."

Last month, Takata said an outside panel that will review its quality and safety practices will include three former top auto safety regulators, a former Treasury secretary and the dean of the engineering school at Northwestern University.

The panel is led by former Transportation secretary and White House Chief of Staff Samuel Skinner, who said in an interview he had recruited the six new members of the "Independent Takata Corporation Quality Assurance Panel" without approval from Takata. He said Takata hasn't put any limits on the budget for the review and said it will at least take several months for the panel — aided by an outside firm with expertise in manufacturing processes, design and compliance that has yet to be hired.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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