Tesla Joins Takata Air-Bag Recall Mess That Will Test Supplies

  • NHTSA doubles recall that was already biggest in history
  • Automobiles will be recalled in five phases through 2019

U.S. Doubles Takata Air Bag Recall

The expanded recall of Takata Corp. air-bags adds more cars and more automakers and will strain its ability to deliver replacement parts, adding uncertainty to the largest and most complex auto-safety campaign in U.S. history.

With the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s announcement on Wednesday that 35 million to 40 million inflators will be added to the recalls, the total number of parts to be replaced could reach 69 million.

“Takata has been in close consultation with NHTSA regarding the severe challenges it will face in supplying replacement parts for the expanded recalls,” the company said in a statement. “Takata will continue to offer its best effort and cooperation.”

The recall now stretches to 17 different manufacturers, including the just-added Tesla Motors Inc. The agency is trying to coordinate with all of the carmakers, plus three air-bag suppliers in addition to Takata, directing parts first to cars that pose the greatest risk.

The recall was announced Wednesday after weeks of discussions with Takata. The action will include all air-bag inflators that don’t have a desiccant to reduce moisture, a factor thought to contribute to misfires that spray bits of metal into the passenger compartment.

Urgent Issue

At least 10 deaths have been linked to the devices. Two additional fatalities in Malaysia may be related to Takata air-bag explosions, said Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s administrator.

“This issue is urgent,” Rosekind said. “The science clearly shows these inflators can become more dangerous over time.”

The move is in addition to the 28.8 million inflators Takata had previously recalled in the U.S., affecting vehicles made by 12 different manufacturers including Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. With the new recalls, as many as 69 million inflators will be recalled. Seventeen manufacturers are now covered, including Daimler AG, and Volkswagen AG, Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc and Fisker Automotive Inc.

NHTSA says it doesn’t know yet how many vehicles for each manufacturer are involved.

Phases for Repairs

The expanded recalls will take place in stages between now and the end of 2019 and will be based on prioritization of risk, which is determined by age and exposure to humidity and temperatures, Rosekind said. Car owners can check to see if their vehicle is affected at www.safercar.gov.

There are five different phases anticipated for repairs and three different geographic zones, based on humidity. Older cars in the most humid states will be repaired first. Repair schedules from the manufacturers are due on May 16. The final repairs for the lowest-risk cars aren’t projected to be done for three and a half years -- until the end of 2019.

Takata said it wasn’t aware of any ruptures involving the newly recalled population of air bags. The Tokyo-based company agreed to act on NHTSA’s request because of “shared interest towards future safety and restoring public confidence,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Long-Term’ Solutions

“This agreement with NHTSA is consistent with our desire to work with regulators and our automaker customers to develop long-term, orderly solutions to these important safety issues,” Shigehisa Takada, Takata’s chairman and chief executive officer, said. “We will continue to dedicate significant resources to maximize recall completion rates.”

NHTSA believes the Takata air-bag issue is an industry-wide responsibility, and it will rely on other air-bag suppliers and the automakers themselves to address parts supply and ensure that the faulty inflators are replaced as soon as possible, Rosekind said.

In February, researchers hired by a coalition of automakers found that moisture was a key factor in the air-bag ruptures that can spray shrapnel toward drivers and front-seat passengers in affected cars. Cars with a particular Takata air-bag design susceptible to water intrusion and with prolonged exposure to a high-humidity climate are at the highest risk, the panel found.

Root Cause

NHTSA largely ratified those conclusions Wednesday as the official root cause of the air-bag failures. The agency concluded that even in the highest-humidity states, cars have to be at least six years old before the inflator chemicals begin to become unstable. In the next highest-risk states, ones with moderately high humidity, it will take 10 to 15 years for the propellants to become unstable. In the coldest states, it’s 15 to 20 years.

Rosekind said Takata’s cooperation in the investigation suggests the company has “turned a corner” toward implementing a new safety culture. With the prior recalls, the move means a substantial number of cars on the road are in need of having their air bags repaired.

“We are not satisfied with the recall rate,” he said. NHTSA will be working with automakers to get more of the cars fixed and take its own steps, he said.

The crisis has wiped out 75 percent of Takata’s value in the past year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

‘Long Decline’

“This is just another step in the long decline of Takata,” said Jochen Siebert, managing director of JSC (Shanghai) Automotive Consulting Co., said before the announcement was made official. “I just can’t see how Takata can survive this disaster.”

Two U.S. senators said even the expanded recall may not be enough. Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, and Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, called for all devices using ammonium nitrate to be replaced.

“Repeated stopgap partial steps, like today’s, will only continue to put drivers, their passengers, and even others on the road at urgent risk,” the senators said in a joint statement. “Until all Takata air bags are replaced with truly reliable protective products that don’t use ammonium nitrate and have proven that they pass most stringent quality assurance testing standards, Takata’s spiraling record of fatal tragedy will continue.”

NHTSA has zeroed in on the role that moisture plays in making the Takata air bags unstable. The agency has said there’s no evidence that air bags that have a desiccant are defective. Under its legal agreement with the regulator, Takata has until 2019 to prove that those air bags are safe.

“There could be further expansion,” Rosekind said. “The science clearly shows that these inflators become unsafe over time, faster when exposed to humidity and variations of temperature.”

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