Automakers, regulators and Takata - which supplies one in five air
bags globally - have yet to pinpoint why these air bags are at risk.
One theory is that moisture in humid climates can make the air bag
inflator's chemical mix more volatile, even years after
That thinking could be tested later on Thursday as two U.S. Senators
have called a news conference with the sister of someone who died in
a 2003 accident in Arizona - potentially a sixth fatality linked to
Takata air bags.
Arizona has a dry climate and has not been covered by a regional
recall focusing on hot and humid areas.
The Arizona death, and the first official confirmation that a
Takata-made air bag killed a Florida woman in October, will likely
be raised at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing, where
officials from Takata, Honda Motor <7267.T> and Chrysler <FCHA.MI>
The hearing would be the first intensive public airing of Takata's
air bag problem in a move reminiscent of congressional grillings
Toyota Motor <7203.T> and General Motors <GM.N> executives faced
over their recall crises in recent years.
Key questions are whether Takata knew of and hid the air bag defects
before alerting automakers and regulators; what it has been doing to
get to the bottom of the problems; and whether a full nationwide
recall is needed.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) this
week told Takata and five automakers to expand nationwide the
piecemeal regional recalls of driver-side air bags. Takata said it
would cooperate if an expanded recall is required, but noted a
national recall could divert resources from humid areas where
replacement air bags are most needed.
Takata and automakers say it will take time to work out how many
more vehicles will need fixing - but it could be in the millions.
Honda, Takata's biggest customer, alone accounts for 2.8 million
cars in the regional recalls covering driver-side air bags to date,
across 11 states. A total 4.1 million cars are subject to regional
recalls including passenger-side air bags.
Since 2008, around 16 million cars with Takata air bags have been
recalled worldwide, with more than 10 million of those in the United
TAKATA INDISPENSABLE - FOR NOW
Another question, particularly for drivers, is how quickly Takata
can supply replacement parts.
In filings with NHTSA on Wednesday, automakers including Honda and
Toyota said they were looking into the option of getting air bag
inflators from other companies, but most said that would take too
long. BMW <BMWG.DE> is backing Takata's efforts to shift inflator
production to Germany from Mexico, and said it was not looking
elsewhere for supply as it would take two years to approve a new
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Takata recently told analysts it had enough existing and planned
capacity to make replacement parts - but that doesn't factor in a
nationwide recall. Reuters calculations show it could take five
months to make just 1 million inflators on two new production lines
planned in Mexico from January, assuming work around-the-clock five
days a week.
Takata has set aside 77.5 billion yen ($660 million) for recall
costs since last year to cover about 9 million vehicles, fewer than
the number of cars recalled since 2013.
"The American people deserve to know the whole story behind this air
bag recall," Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida who will
chair the congressional hearing, said on Wednesday. "That's why
we're holding this hearing to get them some answers and spur
automakers to do more to help get these dangerous cars off the road
and fixed as soon as possible."
Thursday's witness list includes Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice
president of global quality assurance at Takata; Scott Kunselman,
Chrysler's senior vice president of vehicle safety and regulatory
compliance, Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North
America, and Stephanie Erdman, a victim of Takata's air bag defect.
David Friedman, NHTSA's deputy administrator, will answer to
criticism his agency has been slow to respond to the scandal.
NHTSA agreed in June to allow automakers to do a regional recall and
use their discretion in deciding how and when to notify customers
and replace faulty parts, resulting in confusion for car owners
receiving mixed messages.
President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he was nominating Mark
Rosekind, an expert in human fatigue, as the next head of NHTSA.
(1 US dollar = 118.1600 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by TOKYO, DETROIT, NEW YORK and WASHINGTON
newsrooms; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)
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