For embattled Japanese supplier Takata, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has both good news and bad.
U.S. safety regulators earlier this week announced that the recall linked to potentially deadly frontal airbags will be smaller than originally predicted. But NHTSA now says it has begun an investigation that could yet add millions more vehicles using Takata’s airbags inflators due to new reports of dangerous malfunctions.
What’s particularly worrisome to observers is that the latest investigation could expand a future recall to cover not just older vehicles but millions of newer models. And the new NHTSA probe is targeting a wider range of airbag types, including side-impact restraints, and not just the frontal devices covered by the original Takata recall.
The current Takata recall was triggered by reports that at least eight people have been killed, with at least 100 more injured, due to faulty airbag inflators, the explosive devices that cause frontal driver and passenger airbags to burst from their hiding place in the steering wheel and dashboard in a forward crash. While a precise cause has yet to be determined, the inflators can operate over-aggressively, sending plastic and metal shrapnel bursting into the passenger compartment.
As part of the recall, NHTSA initially ordered 11 different automakers to replace inflators used in 34 million driver and passenger airbags. The agency has now reduced that by about 40%, to 23.4 million airbags used in 19.2 million vehicles.
There appear to be several reasons for the discrepancy. For one thing, a large number of vehicles using the suspect airbags turned out to have been sold outside the United States. Meanwhile some vehicles were counted twice, since they were equipped with both driver and passenger airbags using Takata inflators.
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The recall has been expanded repeatedly over the last several years, but has continued to focus on older vehicles and driver and passenger frontal airbags.
That could change, at least if the latest NHTSA probe uncovers new and broader problems. The first sign of trouble surfaced with the report of a Takata airbag failure in a 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan. In this instance, a side impact airbag misfired after a collision with a deer, shrapnel causing a near-fatal injury to the driver.
NHTSA subsequently received a report from General Motors that it recalled 334 Chevrolet Malibus set for sale in the Middle East, Singapore and the Middle East. That May recall was ordered after a side impact airbag failed during routine testing by Takata.
At this point, it is unclear whether this was an isolated incident or suggestive of problems covering a broader array of Takata airbag systems. While it was common for older vehicles involved in the original Takata recall to have only a few airbags onboard, some of today’s passenger cars and light trucks come equipped with 10 or more of the safety devices.
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Late last month, two U.S. Senators, Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Massachusetts Edward Markey, both Democrats, responded by calling for the recall of all vehicles using Takata airbags, including newer models.
That could create a variety of challenges. Not only would millions more vehicles be affected but that could make it exponentially more difficult to complete the repairs on a timely basis. Even now, manufacturers have been straining to provide the necessary parts, dealers struggling to squeeze owners into their service bays.
Toyota last month asked safety supplier Nippon Kayaku Co. to provide up to 13 million replacement inflators, rather than relying on Takata for the parts. The deal could be worth as much as $150 million, according to reports from Japan.
Separately, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind last month told TheDetroitBureau.com that the agency has informally begun looking at broader concerns about airbag performance. A key question is whether the explosive inflators, seals and other components used in the safety devices could begin to malfunction more frequently as they age. At this point, however, Rosekind said there is no formal investigation planned.
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