Air bag recall pressure builds; Takata remains defiant

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The pressure on automakers to expand recalls of Takata air bags intensified Wednesday, as Honda Motor Co. agreed to a U.S. government request to expand nationwide its recall of driver-side air bags and Chrysler Group LLC said it will recall an additional 149,150 pickups, but stopped far short of the broader U.S. recall request.

And late Wednesday, Ford Motor Co. said it would expand its regional air bag recall by 13,000 vehicles.

Their actions took place even as the defiant Takata Corp. refused Wednesday to extend a nationwide recall of driver-side air bags, despite a demand by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Japanese auto supplier came under harsh criticism at a congressional hearing because of its refusal.

Inflators in the Takata bags can explode and shoot metal shrapnel at drivers and passengers. At least four people in Hondas have been killed and 30 injured in the U.S., mostly in high-humidity areas like Florida.

Honda said it would work with two other major suppliers — Auotliv and Daicel — to ramp up production to meet growing demand for replacement parts. The automaker did not disclose how many vehicles will be impacted by the latest callback. But since 2013, 10 automakers have recalled more than 7.8 million vehicles in the United States for problems with the air bags.

Most recalls have been regional to date, limited to hot and humid places like Florida and Hawaii, where most of the exploding air bags have been reported. Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata’s senior vice president of global quality assurance, told a House subcommittee Wednesday that the scientific evidence “doesn’t support a change from regional recall to national recall.”

He admitted under questioning that the company still doesn’t know the root cause of the problems, but believes they are linked to long-term exposure to high humidity. But NHTSA and automakers still don’t know if the replacement air bags could develop the same problem in five or 10 years — or if the chemical propellant used by Takata is part of the problem.

Takata told NHTSA that if the five major automakers expanded the air bag recall to all of the United States, it would add more than 8 million more vehicles to the list of those that need to be fixed, and replacement parts already are in short supply. The company said the failure rate is “approximately 0.000006 failures per air bag deployment — far below the failure rate in the vast majority of the thousands of recalls.”

NHTSA deputy chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety administration, David Friedman, rejected that and vowed in the coming months to hold a public hearing to force the recall of millions more vehicles. “It’s time for the industry to step up,” he told the House panel.

Last week, NHTSA formally demanded Takata declare that millions of vehicles sold with driver-side air bags nationwide are defective, the first step toward forcing the company to recall the vehicles. NHTSA hasn’t sought a nationwide recall of passenger-side air bags.

NHTSA is not empowered to order a recall. Because Takata refused, the next step will be for NHTSA to issue an initial decision demanding a recall and to schedule a public hearing, where it could hear graphic testimony from people who have been injured. If Takata refuses after the hearing, the agency would have to go to court to enforce the recall demand.

Reps take their shots

Members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee investigating the exploding air bags reacted with withering criticism.

Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., asked Shimizu how many people had to die before Takata would agree to expand the recall. Long compared driving with a Takata air bag “to driving down the highway with a shotgun pointed at you.”

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the committee, said, “It’s been a bad year for auto safety. The American people deserve to have confidence in the cars that they are drive are safe and that the industry and government are doing everything they can to improve safety.”

He said the Takata recalls — more than 16 million worldwide since 2008 — require more answers. It is still not clear, he said, if the cause of exploding inflators is because of manufacturing problems or a “design flaw.” He said it’s not clear if the issue is high humidity.

“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?”

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said it remains unclear when Takata and the automakers learned of problems. He said there are questions about “whether the replacement inflators are safe.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said it “says a lot” about how NHTSA is viewed that Takata can defy the agency. “These companies are way more afraid of a civil lawsuit than NHTSA,” she said at a separate Senate hearing Wednesday on NHTSA’s new proposed safety chief.

Filling replacement void

Takata has estimated it could take at least a year or two to produce enough parts even as it ramps up production from 300,000 replacement parts per month to 450,000 in January.

Jan Carlson, CEO of Autoliv, which is working with Honda to fill the parts void, said it would take six months to begin making deliveries of replacements. “With quality as our first priority we are assessing the current and upcoming market needs in order to match our delivery capabilities,” the Swedish auto supplier chief said in a statement.

And demand for replacement air bags is growing.

Chrysler — the Auburn Hills unit of Fiat Chrysler NV — will recall 149,150 pickups in seven U.S. states and five territories to address concerns about improper deployment of passenger-side bags.

The automaker previously said it was limiting its recall to vehicles sold or registered in high-humidity areas of Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. NHTSA said the recall should include southern Georgia, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa and areas along the coast of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Chrysler agreed in June to recall 371,000 2003-08 Dodge Rams, 2004-08 Dodge Durangos, 2007-08 Chrysler Aspens, 2005-08 Chrysler 300s, 2005-08 Dodge Dakotas and 2006-07 Mitsubishi Raiders.

Chrysler’s expanded recall announced Wednesday only covers the 2003 Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 pickups sold or ever registered in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands.

NHTSA in a statement blasted Chrysler and suggested a new battle is coming: “Chrysler’s latest recall is insufficient, doesn’t meet our demands, and fails to include all inflators covered by Takata’s defect information report. NHTSA will determine next steps and take appropriate actions to ensure Chrysler acts to protect its customers,” the agency said in a statement.

NHTSA officials said Chrysler’s expansion only covers one inflator, of the two types they use.

Chrysler didn’t immediately respond.

Ford’s announcement said it would expand its regional passenger side air bag recall by 13,000 vehicles at NHTSA’s request. The automaker has now recalled 98,000 vehicles with Takata air bags. The expanded recall includes certain 2004-05 Ford Ranger and 2005-06 Ford GTs originally sold or ever registered in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It adds certain ZIP codes with high humidity in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Guam, Saipan and American Samoa.

Last month, Ford expanded its recall of vehicles with Takata air bags by 25,000 2004-05 Ranger pickup trucks to both passenger and driver air bags after Takata Corp. said the vehicle has similar inflators to a Honda vehicle involved in an incident that killed a pregnant woman in July in Malaysia.

GM fixes touted as guide

“Why are we doing this? Because our customers have concerns and we want to address them,” Rick Schostek, an executive vice president at Honda North America, told the House subcommittee.

Both Honda and BMW AG told the subcommittee they will provide loaners or rental cars to all consumers awaiting air bag recall repairs.

In November, NHTSA asked Takata and five automakers — Honda, Ford, Chrysler, BMW and Mazda Motor Co. — to issue nationwide recalls for millions of vehicles with driver-side air bags. Until Wednesday, none had done so. Honda accounted for the majority of vehicles recalled in the United States for air bag problems.

Rep. Upton has accused Honda of “manipulating the system to report as little as possible,” and pressed automakers to follow the lead of General Motors Co. in admitting mistakes.

Upton praised GM CEO Mary Barra, who testified earlier about delayed reporting of defective ignition switches that are now linked to 36 fatalities. He said she admitted to mistakes and reformed the company’s safety processes.

“I’d like to see that same level of urgency, that same admission of mistakes and that same commitment to do better today,” he said.