Report: Takata Airbag Repairs Are Going Slowly, Might Not Meet First Deadline

Image courtesy of Samuel M. Livingston

So far, more than 46 million shrapnel-shooting Takata airbag inflators have been recalled by more than a dozen automakers. With more airbags being added to the recall list, it might come as no surprise that carmakers are having a difficult time keeping pace with repairs. But a new report suggests that the replacement of the most dangerous airbags is taking too long, and millions are still likely to be waiting for a fix as a year-end deadline comes and goes.

A recent Associated Press analysis of documents filed by automakers with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — the agency in charge of the Takata recall — suggests that efforts to expedite the repairs of the most dangerous Takata airbag inflators aren’t working as regulators had hoped.

In fact, the analysis found that about 10 million of the highest risk airbags — those with the greatest risk of rupturing during a crash or that have been in high humidity areas for many years — are still on the roads.

For those unfamiliar, Takata’s airbag inflators use an ammonium nitrate propellant. If the device is exposed to humidity and related temperature swings over a period of time the chemical can combust violently, rupturing the inflator when the airbag deploys in the event of a crash.

Priority Groups

The large nature of the recall means tens of millions of new inflators were needed at once. To address the massive campaign, NHTSA issued a consent order in November 2015 that outlined the handling of the recall, breaking repairs into prioritization groups [PDF].

The groups were created [PDF] based on risk factors such as vehicle age, geography, climate, and inflator position — whether it was in the driver’s side or passenger side — and presence of two recalled inflators.

“Regardless of these circumstances, every defective air bag inflator must be — and will be — replaced,” NHTSA says on its Takata recall website. “We ask for your understanding while the air bags that pose a higher risk to their vehicle’s drivers and occupants are replaced first.”

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That first group, deemed to have a much greater risk of rupturing, includes vehicles with older inflators that have experienced prolonged exposure to hot and humid conditions.

As part of the priority grouping, NHTSA ordered vehicle manufacturers to ensure that they had sufficient remedy parts on hand by March 31, 2016 for the first group, and to have all fixes completed by Dec. 31, 2017.

Falling Behind

But that might not happen, the AP analysis found, noting that of the 15 highest-priority Takata recalls, few had a replacement completion rate of more than 50%.

The Ford Ranger pickup truck, for example, has already been directly linked to a Takata-related death — and yet it has a completion rate of just 1.1%.

Honda, which has been linked to at least 11 Takata-related deaths, has a completion rate of 63% for priority one vehicles. But that still leaves 3.3 million inflators left to be repaired, the AP reports.

Reports filed as of March 31 show that BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Daimler, Nissan, Mazda, and Mitsubishi all have completion rates under 50%.

In all, NHTSA says that automakers have replaced 16 million airbags, which accounts to about 40% of those affected by the recalls.

These rates could shift soon, however, as additional Takata airbags have been recalled in recent weeks. Last month, NHTSA announced that 2.7 million airbags would be recalled in Ford, Mazda, and Nissan vehicles.

Consequences

Automakers who fail to meet NHTSA’s deadline for replacing the airbags likely will face consequences. When NHTSA released its list of priority recalls and a timeline for repairs, it also suggested that it could fine or otherwise penalize manufacturers for failing to complete the remedies.

A rep for NHTSA tells the AP that the agency is monitoring compliance with the recall remedy schedule, and “will take further action as appropriate.”

As for automakers, they are working to complete repairs as soon as they can, but note that there has been difficulty in obtaining new parts or getting vehicle owners in the door.

A rep for Ford, which has a low completion rate for the Ranger truck, said the company is replacing inflators in the techie in higher risk areas first. However, these replacements are just an updated version of the currently defective airbag inflator.

“We are working with our suppliers to expedite final remedy parts for these vehicles and expect those to be available in early fourth quarter 2017,” the rep said.