Air-Bag Maker Pressed for Quick Repairs Facing Shortage

The U.S. auto regulator pressing the air-bag maker at the center of a safety crisis will likely be told it will take well into next year to fix the devices in all cars.

Japan’s Takata Corp. today meets the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the first time since the agency demanded daily or weekly updates on its capacity to produce replacement parts for cars made by Honda Motor Co. and nine other automakers. The last update by Takata six weeks ago projected only one-third of the kits will be ready by February.

Takata air bags are linked to at least four deaths and were alleged to have caused 139 injuries in class-action lawsuits filed this week, after carmakers including Honda and Toyota Motor Corp. combined to recall almost 8 million vehicles in the U.S. Inflators that activate the air bags after crashes have malfunctioned by deploying with excessive force, shooting metal fragments at occupants.

“From what I see, it will take several months to get the recall done,” said Jochen Siebert, a Shanghai-based managing director of JSC Automotive Consulting and former analyst for air-bag maker Milliken & Co. Production capacity at Takata is “the bottleneck for the speed of the recall,” he said.

NHTSA has ratcheted up the urgency of its directives since its handling of the air-bag crisis drew a White House review and more questions from Congress, following criticism over how it investigated General Motors Co.’s deadly ignition switches. The regulator released letters to Takata and the 10 automakers dated yesterday that emphasized its use of “the strongest possible terms” to hasten the industry’s response.

‘Deeply Troubled’

“I am deeply troubled by this situation because of the potential risk for death and injury as well as the erosion of public confidence in a proven life-saving technology,” Deputy Administrator David Friedman said in NHTSA’s letter to Takata.

Alby Berman, a Takata spokesman, said the parts maker is cooperating fully with the regulator and is working to meet the agency’s requests.

Yesterday’s letters by NHTSA followed its consumer advisory last week that contained erroneous information about the cars affected and directed people to the agency’s then-inoperable website.

Consumers have responded by flooding dealerships’ phone lines with as many as 900 calls per day, and they’re being told the wait may last months, according to at least two lawsuits filed against Takata and automakers this week in Florida and California.

Regular Updates

NHTSA said in its letter yesterday that Takata must share with the agency its ability to expand air bag inflator output and any contributions competing auto-parts makers can make to boost the supply of replacement parts.

Takata’s competitors so far have offered little detail as to their capability to help. TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. was contacted by Takata directly and is willing to assist, Chief Executive Officer John Plant said this week.

“Our customers would clearly welcome that support,” he told analysts on an Oct. 28 quarterly earnings conference call. “The dynamic of course is potentially favorable, but at the moment, I couldn’t point to anything specific in terms of contracts” or orders that were “in hand.”

Autoliv Inc., the world’s biggest maker of air-bag inflators, is looking into its available capacity, CEO Jan Carlson told analysts on a conference call last week.

“That could be an opportunity for us,” Carlson said Oct. 23. He declined to elaborate beyond noting that Autoliv has “seen some business as a consequence of this coming our way.”

Affected Carmakers

Honda can’t comment on progress with its recall procedures, spokesman Teruhiko Tatebe said today by phone. The company leads all carmakers in having recalled more than 5 million vehicles in the U.S. the last two years for defective air bags.

“Our focus right now is the safety of our customers, and we will continue to take steps to resolve this issue for them as quickly and conveniently as possible,” said Naoki Sumino, a spokesman for Toyota, which has recalled 877,000 vehicles with Takata airbags during the past two years.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. called car owners directly in southern Florida this month to make appointments for repairs, CEO Osamu Masuko said yesterday.

NHTSA has said the problems with Takata air bags could be linked to moisture in high-humidity areas degrading performance of the safety device.

Representatives from Nissan Motor Co. and Subaru-maker Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. didn’t respond to requests for comment about their repair efforts.

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