Air bag recall expected to be largest in U.S. history

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. is declaring 33.8 million vehicles defective, a move that likely will lead to the largest auto recall campaign in U.S. history.

Under heavy government pressure, the determination will force 11 major automakers to double the recall of vehicles with air bag inflators linked to deadly explosions, from the 17 million recalled to date. Government officials say the campaign could take years to complete and be the single largest U.S. recall of any consumer product, surpassing the callback of 31 million bottles of Tylenol in 1982 amid a poison scare.

The massive air bag recall covers more than 13 percent of all cars and trucks on the roads in the U.S. today. It would easily surpass the largest automotive recall — 23 million vehicles by Ford Motor Co. in 1980 for a transmission issue that only required the addition of a warning sticker.

"Today is a major step forward for public safety," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday. He called it "a monumental effort — there is no doubt about it."

It may be weeks or months before all additional owners know whether their vehicles are to be recalled by automakers. And it could be "some years" before there are enough replacement parts to fix every one, according to Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The air bags are linked to at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries, caused when propellant explodes with too much force and sends dangerous metal fragments flying.

Officials say there is a link to high humidity and moisture, though the precise cause of the problem is not known. Foxx said the government has "a lot of work to do" to figure out what is causing them to explode, but said it can't delay the recall.

The sweeping announcement is a major victory for NHTSA, which has been pressing Takata since November to declare millions of vehicles defective. The embattled Japanese air bag maker, whose North American headquarters is in Auburn Hills, said it made the move at the government's urging.

The government has imposed no fines at this time.

Tuesday actions are the latest move by the newly aggressive federal auto safety agency, which Rosekind has headed since December. NHTSA on Tuesday separately announced it will hold an unprecedented public hearing in July to force Fiat Chrysler to explain what NHTSA calls a pattern of improperly handling callbacks in 20 recall campaigns since 2013. And it comes after the agency faced heavy criticism last year for failing to discover General Motors Co. delayed recall of 2.6 million vehicles for ignition switch defects now linked to more than 100 deaths.

New vehicles declared defective by Takata on Tuesday include passenger air bags in the 2004-07 Honda Accord and 2003-07 Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe; and some air bags in 2001-06 Honda Civics. A few hundred vehicles from Daimler Trucks also are covered by Takata's new report. Others could be added as automakers review Takata's findings.

Ford, Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and other automakers said in statements they will respond quickly to the defect notices but don't know yet what vehicles will be covered.

Recalls date to 2008

Ten automakers previously had recalled 17 million cars and trucks with faulty Takata air bags: Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, BMW AG, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Mazda Motor Co., Mitsubishi and Subaru Motors USA. They issued callbacks even as Takata refused to declare the parts defective.

The recalls began in 2008 with Honda, and continued to expand over the last seven years. To date, the bulk of the vehicles recalled have been Hondas, which has reports of at least six deaths and 64 injuries connected to air bags exploding and sending deadly metal fragments flying.

In December, Takata came under harsh criticism at a congressional hearing over its refusal to declare the parts defective. Automakers dramatically expanded callbacks as a result. Honda has recalled 5.5 million vehicles since last year, and previously recalled millions more dating to 2008.

In April, NHTSA upgraded its investigation into 12 million vehicles with potentially defective Takata air bags. And it began levying $14,000 in daily civil penalties against the supplier for failing to respond to requests for information about more than 2.5 million pages of documents it has produced.

Under the consent deal announced Tuesday, NHTSA suspended more than $1 million in fines and said it would stop imposing daily fines. But it could impose fines down the road.

Takata has been working to dramatically boost production of replacement parts. The company said in March it had boosted production to 450,000 replacement kits per month, up from 350,000 in December, and expects to be producing 900,000 kits per month by September. Honda announced last year it also would buy additional replacement inflator parts from Swedish supplier Autoliv.

Some of the repairs — especially for passenger air bags — will be phased in, starting with high-humidity areas.

Takata says NHTSA could determine through testing at a later date that national recalls aren't required for all passenger air bags, which could reduce the 33.8 million figure. But it could also end up being higher, since it is only an estimated tally.

Upton pushes for answers

Takata has come under scrutiny and faces lawsuits over whether it addressed quality issues as it rapidly expanded air bag production. It has admitted to problems at plants in Mexico and Washington state.

Shigehisa Takada, chairman & CEO of Takata Corp., said Tuesday's deal "presents a clear path forward to advancing safety and restoring the trust of automakers and the driving public."

"It is clear that this is a complex issue which takes time to fully evaluate," he said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said in an interview that Tuesday's move is "long overdue," but warned it could take years for Takata to build enough replacement parts. He wants NHTSA to order Takata to share data to allow other manufacturers to build replacements.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said more needs to be done. "We know there's still a problem: We need answers, and we need action. Everyone involved, from Takata to NHTSA to the manufacturers, needs to buckle down and figure out what triggers the air bag explosions," Upton said. "We can do our part to hold their feet to the fire, and we will."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said he hopes Tuesday's actions mark the beginning of the end to this saga.

"Folks shouldn't have to drive around wondering if their air bag is going to explode in their face or if their car is going to be on another recall list," he said. "We've seen the recall list double now to 30 million cars. Let's hope Takata's admissions today tells us the whole story."

Takata timeline

2007: Honda reports three accidents to Takata involving air bag inflator ruptures.

November 2008: Honda launches recall for 4,000 vehicles globally that have potentially defective propellant in driver's air bag inflators.

May 2009: Driver in a 2001 Honda Accord in Oklahoma dies after an air bag inflator ruptures.

July 2009: Honda recalls 510,000 vehicles globally.

December 2009: Driver in a 2001 Honda Accord in Virginia dies after inflator explodes.

February 2010: Honda expands earlier recall to 437,000 vehicles.

April 2011: Honda recalls 896,000 cars to find defective Takata air bag inflators installed as replacement parts.

December 2011: Honda expands global recall to 613,000 vehicles to find defective inflators installed as replacement parts.

November 2012: Takata notified of three more accidents involving ruptured air bag inflators — two in Puerto Rico and one in Maryland.

April 2013: Six automakers say they will recall 3.4 million vehicles worldwide, including more than 1 million in the U.S.

June 2014: NHTSA announces investigation of 1.1 million vehicles from five major automakers for problems with air bags. Toyota, Chrysler, Nissan and Mazda say they are cooperating with the investigation.

June 2014: GM recalls 29,000 2013-14 Chevrolet Cruzes with faulty air bags.

July 2014: BMW expands its recall to 1.6 million globally.

October 2014: NHTSA expands national recall to 7.8 million. It adds Ford, Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Subaru to the recall.

November 2014: NHTSA formally demands Takata declare that millions of vehicles sold with driver-side air bags nationwide are defective, the first step toward forcing the company to recall vehicles.

December 2014: Takata comes under harsh criticism at a congressional hearing.

April 2015: NHTSA upgrades its investigation into 12 million vehicles with potentially defective Takata bags. It begins levying $14,000 a day in civil penalties against Takata for failing to respond to requests for information.

May 2015: Takata announces 33.8 million vehicles are defective, leading to the largest U.S. recall of any consumer product. NHTSA suspends daily fines as Takata agrees to consent order agreeing to make improvements.