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Washington — A group of 10 automakers on Thursday said they have named Virginia-based aerospace and defense firm Orbital ATK to conduct independent testing on Takata air bag inflators that have been subject to recent recalls.

The automakers also confirmed that former acting National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Kelly was named project manager and coordinator of the joint testing initiative.

The automakers — BMW AG, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Honda Motor Co., Mazda Motor Co., Mitsubishi, Nissan Motor Co., Subaru Motors USA and Toyota Motor Corp. — are participating in an industry-wide joint testing initiative to understand the root cause of defective air bags that in some cases have exploded and sent deadly metal fragments flying.

In a joint statement, the automakers said: "Orbital ATK is one of the world's leading engineering firms, and we are confident that their extensive expertise will help speed and advance the ongoing technical investigation of Takata air bag inflators. This selection, along with David Kelly, represents an important step forward in our industry-wide effort. We look forward to the results of this rigorous testing process as we continue to focus on the safety, security and peace of mind of our customers."

Automakers want to understand the root cause of the failures and assurances that replacement air bags won't eventually face the same problems — especially in high humidity areas. Congress has held hearings on the issue that has faced intense public interest.

At least six deaths and 64 injuries are linked to the problem. All of the deaths and most of the injuries have taken place in Honda vehicles. Since 2008, automakers have recalled about 17 million vehicles with Takata air bags that can rupture when they deploy. In 2014, five automakers — BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Mazda — launched national recalls at NHTSA's urging for defective driver-side air bags.

The automakers said Orbital ATK will lead overall engineering research into the issues surrounding Takata air bag inflators, with testing to begin immediately. Kelly will serve as project manager and coordinator for the automakers, directing the research program and acting as primary contact for media and other public requests.

"Orbital ATK brings to this investigation more than 60 years of experience in energetic materials, propulsion technology and failure analyses on energetic systems," said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK's Propulsion Systems Division. "We look forward to providing a detailed technical analysis in support of enhanced public safety."

Orbital and ATK merged last year.

Air bags are similar to a solid rocket booster, in which the air bag uses a solid propellant to create gas to inflate the bag quickly in the event of a crash. Orbital ATK designs space, defense and aviation systems, including: launch vehicles and propulsion systems, missile products, subsystems and defense electronics, precision weapons, armament systems and ammunition. The company employs more than 12,000 people.

On Wednesday, NHTSA issued an order requiring Takata to preserve all air bag inflators removed through the recall process as evidence for both NHTSA's investigation and private litigation cases. And NHTSA upgraded its investigation into 11.5 million vehicles with Takata air bags launched in June to an engineering analysis.

Under NHTSA oversight, Takata is testing air bag inflators to determine the scope of the defect and to search for the root cause.

"Testing of thousands of air bags to date has not produced any evidence that the passenger-side defect extends outside the high-humidity zone," NHTSA said.

NHTSA said Takata is required to set aside 10 percent of inflators for outside testing. Lawyers suing the company or automakers who seek access to inflators must submit to the terms of the preservation order, which grants NHTSA access to all testing data.

Separately, NHTSA on Feb. 20 began levying $14,000 a day in civil penalties against Takata for failure to respond to requests for information about more than 2.5 million pages of documents.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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