Takata to phase out, replace some air bags

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Embattled Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. will tell Congress on Tuesday it will phase out one type of driver-side air bag inflator and replace some that already were replaced in an earlier recall.

At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, Takata Executive Vice President of North America Kevin Kennedy will say the firm will halt production of a driver-side air bag inflator with a "batwing" design linked to six deaths.

The Japanese air bag manufacturer, which has its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, has declared defective 33.8 million vehicles made by 11 major automakers. All have air bag inflators that can explode and throw shrapnel at drivers and passengers. More than 50 million vehicles worldwide have been called back, but it could take years to build enough replacement parts.

Takata will replace batwing inflators already installed as replacement parts. "The final stage of the recalls will include the replacement of batwing driver inflators that were previously installed as remedy parts in prior recalls," Kennedy's written testimony released Monday says. "Takata has also committed to cease producing these types of driver inflators."

Kennedy says the company will use replacement inflators that don't use ammonium nitrate, according to written testimony released Monday.

It is relying on competitors' inflators for about half of replacement kits it is producing. Most competitors don't use ammonium nitrate.

But the company said in a statement Monday it will continue to use "ammonium nitrate in our propellant, which is safe and effective for use in air bag inflators when properly engineered and manufactured. We are confident that our replacement air bags are safe."

The exact cause of the exploding inflators is still unknown, but one theory is that ammonium nitrate becomes unstable in high heat and humidity, and can ignite with higher force than intended.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Tuesday will hold a press conference before the hearing with safety advocates who seek to gain support for sweeping auto safety reforms. Those reforms, first proposed last year, would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sweeping new authority to get unsafe vehicles off the road and create a $3 per vehicle tax that would rise to $9 over three years to fund new staff.

The bill would require auto dealers to repair recalled used cars before selling them and require disclosure of recalls and whether fixes have been made. It would require NHTSA to create new regulations, including new standards for passenger motor vehicles to reduce the number of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities.

Lawmakers slow to act

But Congress has shown little interest this year in taking up auto safety reform and hasn't supported the White House call to triple NHTSA funding for defects investigations.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind will tell the committee that the defects budget has fallen 23 percent over a decade after adjusting for inflation.

"NHTSA's lack of resources is a known risk," Rosekind will say, repeating calls to hike maximum fines to $300 million for delayed recalls from the current $35 million.

Also at the hearing, the head of the auto trade association representing Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and others, will say major automakers endorse NHTSA's plan to use its authority under a 2000 law to take a hands-on approach to overseeing what is the largest single auto safety recall in U.S. history.

Mitch Bainwol, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers CEO, backs NHTSA's plans to take command of the recall.

"U.S. antitrust laws may hinder multiple manufacturers from developing common approaches to many of the issues critical to an efficient recall and remedy. A clear, unified approach to the recall and remedy process is the most effective way to minimize owner confusion and improve participation rates for this recall," Bainwol says in his written testimony.

Bainwol said the alliance is researching why some owners fail to get recalled vehicles fixed.

Takata: Explosions rare

Kennedy will tell the House panel that the incidence of exploding air bags is rare.

In the case of the batwing inflators, the 67 reported cases "represent approximately 0.0087 percent of estimated total deployments of these air bags, or fewer than nine failures out of every 100,000 deployments."

Kennedy said there have been no cases of deaths in passenger-side air bags and only 21 reported cases of ruptures. He said the company hopes NHTSA will not require a nationwide recall on most passenger-side bags.

Kennedy's testimony says Takata is in the process of developing an ad campaign to tell car owners to get them fixed.

He said the company is ramping up production of replacement parts. Based on current numbers, it could take years to build enough replacement parts — even as Takata uses inflators built by competitors. Takata replacement parts production rose from 350,000 in May to 700,000 last month.