A showdown is looming between U.S. safety regulators and a Japanese company that makes air bags linked to multiple deaths and injuries.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants the Takata Corp. to recall millions of potentially faulty driver-side air bag inflators throughout the U.S., not just regionally. The air bags' propellant canisters can explode, sending metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment.
But Takata, in communications early Wednesday from Japan, is holding to its stance that current recalls, issued only in high-humidity areas such as Gulf Coast states, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, are enough.
Takata has said that prolonged exposure to moisture can cause the propellant to burn faster than designed, causing the problem, and that a broader recall isn't supported by the evidence.
That sets up a showdown between the NHTSA and Takata, with automakers caught in the middle. The agency said that unless Takata and the car companies agree to a national recall quickly, it "will use the full extent of its statutory powers" to impose one.
The dispute comes on the eve of a Senate committee hearing on the air bag problems. Lawmakers have criticized the NHTSA for not forcing a nationwide recall sooner and for what they say has been a haphazard and slow response to the deadly problem. A Takata quality executive and NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman are scheduled to face questioning.
At least five deaths and nearly 50 injuries have been linked to the air bags worldwide. So far, about 8 million cars in the U.S. with Takata inflators have been recalled for problems with driver- or passenger-side air bags. Some 4 million vehicles have been recalled outside the U.S.
Safety regulators say the NHTSA's push to recall millions of additional cars equipped with the airbags is based on incidents involving a death in California and an injury in North Carolina in which the air bags were implicated. Both states are outside the area covered by the earlier recalls.
"One can be an anomaly. Two becomes a trend, and we feel we need to act," said Friedman.
Takata said in a statement that it agrees the current recall should be expanded if the investigation it's conducting with NHTSA determines there is a safety risk. But it said the current results indicate that a regional recall is appropriate. Takata said it has evaluated 1,000 driver- and passenger-side inflators from outside the humid areas and none have ruptured air bags.
"Takata is concerned that a national recall under these circumstances could potentially divert replacement air bags from where they're needed, putting lives at risk," the company said.
Complicating matters, Takata is struggling to make enough replacement air bag inflators to handle the smaller regional recall and likely would have trouble supplying demand for a nationwide recall. The company has promised to add two production lines by the start of next year to make more inflators, Friedman said on a conference call after the government's recall statement.
He said that if Takata and the automakers don't agree to a nationwide recall quickly, the NHTSA will use its legal powers to make sure the inflators are recalled.
On Thursday lawmakers will hold a hearing to question Friedman and representatives from Takata and the automakers about their response to the air bag problem. Next week millions of drivers across the U.S. will hop in their cars to travel for the busy Thanksgiving weekend.
The government's demand for a national recall covers vehicles made by Ford, Honda, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW, generally from the 2008 model year and earlier. The owner of a 2007 Ford Mustang recently complained to the government about suffering a leg injury when an air bag malfunctioned in North Carolina.
Friedman said that the NHTSA is asking automakers for a complete list of vehicles with Takata inflators that are similar to the 2007 Mustang and that information will be shared with the public when available. He did not know an exact number of vehicles involved.
Ford, Chrysler, Mazda and Honda said Tuesday that they're working with the NHTSA but wouldn't say if they will expand their recalls. BMW said its recall of Takata air bags already is national.
On Monday, The Associated Press reported that Honda was quietly fixing air bags across the nation if customers were concerned about their safety. So far, Honda has formally issued a recall in 13 states and territories.
The Associated Press