It’s easy to put off action regarding some recalls, or to even forget about them. But when a recall involves the potential for what is essentially shrapnel shot throughout the interior of an automobile, well, that’s something different. That is what is happening with some vehicles equipped with Takata airbags, which may potentially inflate with too much force, blowing apart metal canisters and sending metal shards flying at drivers and passengers. At least three deaths and more than 100 injuries have been attributed so far to the rupturing airbags made by Japanese auto supplier Takata.
The situation has gotten so bad recently that Toyota and General Motors advised U.S. passengers not to sit in the front seat of several of their models containing Takata air bags—a warning Toyota had issued in Japan four months earlier. Toyota furthermore said that a defective inflator could be so dangerous that affected owners in humid areas of the U.S. should consider letting dealers deactivate the air bags in their cars if replacement parts aren’t readily available. Think about that for a minute: an automaker’s statement is that it may be safer to drive with deactivated airbags than with potentially faulty airbags poised to deploy.
That’s not all that’s happening, however. Last week, the New York Times reported that Capitol Hill increased pressure on Takata as well as U.S. federal safety regulators, when two senators demanded wider recalls to fix millions of defective airbags, and a House committee said it wanted a fuller accounting of how the recalls were handled.
In a letter, Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward J. Markey took the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to task for its handling of the recalls. The senators reprimanded the agency for allowing automakers to limit the recalls to certain geographic areas with “high humidity,” the New York Times article reports. Humidity, regulators said, may cause the propellant to erupt, sending shrapnel into the cabin.
“NHTSA should immediately issue a nationwide safety recall on all the affected cars, regardless of where the car is registered,” the senators wrote in the letter, which was addressed to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose agency oversees NHTSA, the New York Times reports. “All states experience seasons of heat and humidity.”
The latest development is that, responding to criticism of its slow response to safety issues, the NHTSA sent letters this week to Takata as well as 10 automakers seeking additional information in the airbag recall, CBS News Money Watch reported yesterday. In the letter, NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman wrote Takata that its inflators are “creating an unacceptable risk of deaths and injuries by projecting metal fragments into vehicle occupants rather than properly inflating the attached air bag,” CBS News reports.
Letters to automakers urged them to speed up owner notifications and replacement-parts distribution. However, a shortage of replacement parts has meant that many drivers who scrambled to act on the recall may face wait times of months. Friedman told Takata that recall efforts won’t work if it doesn’t produce enough parts.
“Takata’s production capacity is critically important,” Friedman wrote, according to CBS News.
In the meantime, further demonstrating the connection between supplier and OEM, several law firms led by Labaton Sucharow filed a proposed class-action suit in Florida this week against Takata and automakers including Honda, BMW, Ford, Nissan and Toyota, a BusinessWeek article reports. The lawsuit claims the defendants concealed the extent of air bag dangers.
Takata’s shares have fallen about 50 percent so far this year as news of the injuries and the $413 million charge it took this summer against recall costs have made investors jittery. It remains to be seen, of course, what impact the airbag recall will have on automakers, but the situation is troubling. It does demonstrate though, how the actions—or in this case, inactions—of a key supplier can cause ripple effects across an industry.