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40m more Takata air bags to be recalled in US

Published 04/05/2016

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind announces the recalls in Washington (AP)
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind announces the recalls in Washington (AP)

Japanese car parts maker Takata will recall another 35 to 40 million air bag inflators in the US, more than doubling what is already the largest automotive recall in American history.

The expansion would bring the total number of inflators to be replaced to 69 million, which the US government said will take until 2019 to complete.

Most of the expansion covers front passenger air bags that were not part of previous recalls, said Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Twelve vehicle manufacturers were already involved in the recall, plus two more added in January, Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz.

The expansion includes three additional manufacturers - Tesla, Jaguar-Land Rover and Fisker.

Takata air bag inflators can explode with too much force and injure people. So far, at least 11 deaths and more than 100 injuries have been reported worldwide.

Replacing so many inflators will be a daunting task because carmakers involved in the current recall of 28.8 million inflators have only been able to fix 28% of the cars involved after more than two years.

Air bag manufacturers have had trouble making enough replacement inflators, and carmakers have had difficulty finding owners and persuading them to get cars repaired.

Under an order issued last year, the US government has wide authority over Takata to prompt additional recalls.

The expansion will be phased in between this month and December 2019, with older cars and those in areas of high heat and humidity getting priority, the NHTSA said.

Takata uses ammonium nitrate to create an explosion that inflates air bags in a crash. But the chemical can degrade over time when exposed to heat and humidity and burn too fast, blowing apart a metal canister and spewing shrapnel into drivers and passengers.

The expanded recall covers all front air bags that do not have a chemical drying agent known as a desiccant. But it does not cover side air bags without the drying agent, nor does it cover another 32 million air bags that have the desiccant.

The government and an independent expert it hired reviewed three independent investigations and confirmed findings that the problem is caused by time, airborne moisture and temperature fluctuations that can degrade the ammonium nitrate, the agency said.

"This recall schedule ensures the inflators will be recalled and replaced before they become dangerous," Mr Rosekind said.

NHTSA officials said vehicles younger than six years old are not currently at risk of an inflator rupture even if they are in a high humidity region.

But as they age, the risk grows, especially in high-humidity areas where temperatures frequently cycle from cool to very hot.

Six years is a conservative estimate, the officials said. The replacement schedule is aimed at getting vehicles fixed before they are old enough to risk a rupture.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat whose state includes several of the injuries and deaths from Takata inflators, said the pace of the recalls is still not fast enough.

"The top priority must be doing whatever is necessary to get these potentially deadly air bags out of people's cars as quickly as possible. If we wait another three or four years for these to get replaced, more people are likely to die," he said.

Even without the expansion, it would have taken until the end of 2017 for enough replacement parts to be manufactured, said Scott Upham, CEO of Valient Market Research in Rochester, New York, which tracks air bag sales.

Mr Upham said other makers of air bag inflators such as TRW Automotive, Daicel and Autoliv have agreed to produce even more.

"They're pitching in to the best of their ability, but even with their help, it's going to be very difficult to really ramp up production to cover this," he said.

Mr Upham said it will be difficult for Takata to survive financially with the expanded recall. He expects the company to file for bankruptcy and emerge as a smaller corporation specialising in seat belts, electronics and air bag assemblies without inflators.

The additional recalls come as authorities in Malaysia investigate two more recent deaths in cars with Takata air bags that ruptured. Honda said the inflators spewed metal fragments in the crashes, but the cause of the deaths has not been determined.

The crashes occurred in April and May. If they were caused by Takata inflators, they would be the 12th and 13th deaths worldwide.

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