Lawmakers on Tuesday sought answers from Takata Corp. on just how much is being done to to find the root cause of an air-bag defect that caused dozens of explosions and at least six deaths.
“I have serious concerns about where we are in the process,” U.S. Representative Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, said at a hearing in Washington. “It is inconceivable to me that none of the tests conducted by Takata over the past year on over 30,000 inflators has given us a clearer picture and dictated more direct action.”
The volatile air-bag inflators behind the largest auto-safety recall in U.S. history went unresolved for a decade with neither Tokyo-based Takata nor the U.S. agency that regulates it finding a reason. Even without definitive answers, the risk has been deemed so great that about 34 million cars are being called in for repairs as a precaution.
“There may not be a single root cause, and we may in fact never know the root cause,” Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in prepared remarks for the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. “That is why NHTSA is taking aggressive action to keep people safe on the road now, rather than waiting, perhaps indefinitely.”
The agency’s monitoring of the air-bag defect was hampered by lack of resources and lack of personnel, Rosekind said. Only eight of the agency’s employees are assigned to sort through about 80,000 consumer complaints a year about potential automotive defects, he said. The office carrying out the Takata investigation also has just eight people, he said.
Burgess asked Rosekind to sit down with committee leaders to go over the agency’s budget.
Investigators of the air-bag defect have started to zero in on Takata’s choice of chemical propellant, a type of ammonium nitrate that can be rendered unstable by high humidity and moisture.
The company’s “current best judgment” is that over a period of many years, high heat and prolonged exposure to moisture can cause an alteration in the chemical makeup of the explosives in the air-bag inflators, leading to “over-aggressive combustion,” said Takata’s executive vice president of North America, Kevin Kennedy.
Takata has focused its recalls on areas of high humidity, such as states along the Gulf of Mexico, because that’s where most of the ruptures have occurred, Kennedy said.
He outlined efforts to use replacement kits from competitors to get cars fixed quicker. About half the replacement air-bag kits that Takata shipped to automakers last month have inflators made by other companies, including some with a different chemical than the one linked to explosions.
That portion is expected to reach 70 percent by the end of the year, Takata said in a statement Monday. Takata said it’s still safe to use a stabilized version of the chemical.
“We continue to use phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate in our propellant, which is safe and effective for use in air-bag inflators when properly engineered and manufactured,” Takata said. “We are confident that our replacement air-bags are safe.”
At the same time, in the past few years Takata has begun using alternatives to ammonium nitrate, Kennedy said, and inflators using the chemical compound are being phased out.
“You will see our production of ammonium nitrate going down rapidly,” Kennedy said. “It certainly got a bad reputation through all this. It’s one of the contributing factors everyone believes is involved.”
In preparation for the hearing, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a timeline of Takata-related events going back to an air-bag rupture in Alabama in May 2004 in a Honda Accord. The first recall to add additional fabric to the inside of the air-bag cushion was conducted by Honda Motor Co. later that year.
The first U.S. death occurred in May 2009, when a driver’s side air bag ruptured in a Honda Accord in Oklahoma. Honda recalled 440,000 U.S. vehicles in another air-bag recall that year. More recalls followed in 2011, 2013 and last year.
After months of resisting NHTSA’s efforts to expand the air-bag recalls, Takata reached an agreement with the regulator last month, almost doubling the number of vehicles covered to about 34 million.
“One thing that isn’t clear is why we are launching this national recall now instead of almost a year ago when we had almost the same information,” Burgess said. “The American people deserve much better.”