Japanese air bag maker Takata's efforts to repair millions of defective air bags involved in a recall of nearly 8 million vehicles are apparently not fast enough for U.S. safety regulators.
In an angry letter penned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to officials of the Tokyo-based air bag company, regulators ordered Takata to issue an official statement by Dec. 2, stating that the driver-side air bags it supplies to automakers including Honda, Mazda, BMW, Ford and Chrysler are defective.
If Takata fails to do so, it could risk paying a fine of $7,000 per affected vehicle, a hefty amount that could lead to the tens of billions of dollars.
The NHTSA is also ordering Takata to step up its recall efforts and elevate the recall to a nationwide scope. Currently, the recalls are limited to areas of high humidity, namely Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Takata has refused the NHTSA's earlier calls for a nationwide recall, arguing that the exploding air bags that send pieces of sharp metal flying all over the passenger cabin are most common in high-humidity locations.
"Our best information supports the view that these regions must be the priority for the replacement of air bags," said Takata vice president Hiroshi Shimizu at a U.S. senate hearing last week. "It is imperative that all owners of the affected vehicles in these regions respond to the recall notices at the earliest opportunity."
However, NHTSA director of defect investigations Frank S. Borris says recent cases demonstrate that the problem is not limited to areas with high humidity. Borris cites the driver of a Honda car in California and another driving a Ford in North Carolina who both suffered injuries after shrapnel from the air bag canister flew at their necks and faces.
"NHTSA is issuing this recall request letter to notify you that the agency has tentatively concluded that a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists on a national basis ... and to demand that Takata issue [a recall]," Borris says.
In a separate letter fired off to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, the NHTSA says it is "extremely concerned" about the "slow pace of recall" of Chrysler vehicles fitted with Takata air bags. During last week's senate hearings on the defective air bags, Chrysler vice president for safety and regulatory compliance Scott G. Kunselman told the senators that the company will not notify affected customers until Dec. 19, citing a lack of replacement parts for the delay.
This has prompted NHTSA deputy administrator David J. Friedman to demand that Chrysler issue a nationwide recall on Dec. 1. Friedman also tells Chrysler that, among the 10 automakers affected by the Takata air bags, Chrysler had the worst response.
"Chrysler's delay in notifying consumers and taking other actions necessary to address the safety defect identified is unacceptable and exacerbates the risks to motorists' safety," Friedman says.
In its response, Chrysler promised to issue a regional recall on Dec. 8, a week after the deadline imposed by the NHTSA. The company also says it will create a corporate committee that will look into the NHTSA's demand for a nationwide recall.
At least five people were killed due to Takata's exploding air bags, with four of them living in the U.S. Thousands of others have been injured.