The Takata Airbag Recall Is Now a Full-Blown Crisis

June 10, 2016, 10:00 AM UTC
Six automakers are recalling over 2.5 million U.S. Vehicles due to faulty Takata airbags.
Kazuhiro Nogi — AFP/Getty Images

As the recall of Takata airbags has been expanded to nearly 70 million vehicles in the U.S., and 100 million worldwide, many owners of vehicles are getting the word that they will have to wait months to get their cars fixed with potentially life-saving airbags.

Of the 70 million recalled, only about 8 million have been replaced. U.S. regulators have estimated that the fixes could take two years to complete.

Honda (HMC) is at the center of the recall, with some 10 million Honda and Acura cars recalled, but the recall includes at least 14 major car makes, including Toyota (TM), Ford (F), Mazda (MZDAY), BMW (BMW-HM) and Audi (AUDVF). (See the complete list of recalled vehicles here.)

The largest safety recall in America’s history, it has drawn the ire of safety advocates and Congress. Sean Kane, founder and president of Safety Research and Strategies, a research and consulting firm that studies recalls and product safety, says automakers are to blame for not responding to early signs of problems with the Takata airbags.

“Honda in particular, though it is not limited to Honda, was Takata’s enabler on this as their biggest customer,” Kane said, charging, “Honda had ample information going back years before NHTSA got involved to have red-flagged this problem for the industry.”

Honda disputes that it withheld data or information about the defects and says it shared all its findings with federal regulators.

Meanwhile, the recall, which has been expanded several times, has taken many turns that spotlights a flawed process. Some manufacturers along the way have been found using defective airbags as replacements in the cars, and even some new cars are still being sold with the defective airbags that will have to be replaced.

The recall also spotlights the danger for automakers to have one supplier so dominate one area where safety defects can be so consequential. Takata has held almost one-third of the airbag market worldwide.

Reports of deaths and injuries

The airbags in question have been blamed for 11 deaths and over 150 injuries, with additional cases under review. Ten of the deaths have occurred in Hondas, the automaker confirmed. The recall stems from the discovery that these airbags, when deployed in an accident, can explode with too much force and spray metal shrapnel at occupants.

An internal investigation by Takata reportedly shows that rust, bad welds and even chewing gum in airbag modules have been at fault. The study is ongoing, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as well as foreign regulators, looped in.

Manufacturers other than Takata are now making replacement airbags for many of the recalled vehicles, and Takata is even using competitors’ products in half of its replacement kits.

Honda’s spokesperson Chris Martin says the company is replacing Takata airbags using parts mostly from three other suppliers: Autoliv (ALV), TRW (ZF TRW) and Japanese maker Daicel. “When we first studied the problem, we forecasted that other companies would be impacted and that Takata would not be able to handle the eventual volume, so we contracted with other suppliers.” He says the wait for a new airbag can be two months after a vehicle has been added to the recall list, but urges owners to call their dealers immediately after being notified, so the part can be ordered.

Martin said that Honda began reviewing how dependent it was on single suppliers, too, after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, which severely impacted production at plants in the U.S. and elsewhere.

It is possible, though, that an owner with a recalled vehicle could wait several months for a fix. That’s because some automakers, including BMW, Jaguar and GM, have had more vehicles added recently, and they are scrambling with suppliers to get proper replacement airbags from suppliers other than Takata. Also, if the owner is not in a prioritized geographic market (one that experiences high humidity), they can end up waiting longer.

Lots of problems with massive recalls

Handling a massive recall is tricky for manufacturers, and companies say that the success especially hinges on responsiveness of the customer.

Last March, a Texas teenager was killed in a recalled 2002 Honda Civic that has been on the recall list since 2014 when the airbag exploded in a rear-end collision. Honda’s Martin says the company investigated and found that multiple notices for the airbag replacement had been received by the family, but no appointment was made. Response for older vehicles in this recall has been less than 15%, while it’s been 70% in Japan.

While there is a lag in getting parts for newer vehicles, Honda says it is well stocked, in fact, with replacements for older Honda vehicles in the recall that date back to 2001. The company has not only used the mail, but social media and even the unorthodox texting customers to drive response. Texting, however, drew the threat of a class action lawsuit, according to Honda, and the company had to get a special document from NHTSA to show a judge that said the measures were being taken to “save lives.”

What about other car companies?

Toyota (TM), including its Lexus and Scion brands, began replacing passenger-side inflators starting last October. The threat is so great that the company even advised its dealers to disable the passenger-side airbags if the replacement was not available, and attach a sticker to the dashboard that says “Do Not Sit Here.”

Some car manufacturers are offering loaner cars until the fixes are made; some are suggesting that customers should not allow passengers to ride in the affected seats.

Defective airbags still used and sold

Takata was found at one point to be installing the same defective airbag inflators that were recalled as replacements. And automakers have been pilloried by safety advocates and public officials for selling new cars with defective and recalled airbags.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla) was animated during a recent hearing on the recall to find out automakers were selling new vehicles with the recalled airbags in them. “What’s troubling here is that consumers are buying new cars not realizing they’re going to be recalled…These cars shouldn’t be sold until they’re fixed,” he said.

“This issue is urgent,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said last month as the recall was expanded. “Vehicle owners who received notice that parts are available for their repair should take action to get their vehicle fixed immediately.”

Under pressure for missing a massive and deadly defect of General Motors faulty ignitions that caused cars to suddenly lose power, NHTSA is not cutting any corners. Not only has it taken control of administering the recall and pressing its legal authority to do so, it has forced the recall beyond the scope of the Mexican plant, which has accounted for all the known failures.

GM is battling back against recalling all of its vehicles, saying its full-sized trucks and SUVs on the recall list have a unique design used with the Takata inflators that would prevent the problem.

The future of Takata

The eventual settlement of this massive recall is yet to be determined, and the same can be said for the future of Takata, once one of the most solid and respected auto suppliers in Japan.

Honda and Ford have said they will not use Takata airbags in the future, though Honda is using a small number of Takata airbags now now as replacements because the other suppliers have not replicated every version of the airbag inflator yet.