By almost any metric, the long, drawn-out, still-evolving Takata airbag recall has been a disaster. But a push to simplify the patchwork of recalls and protect auto industry employees who expose internal problems could alleviate confusion now and prevent similar troubles in the future.
For consumers, the Takata recalls have been frustrating -- and in at least five cases, fatal. Owners have read the headlines, they've tried to decipher automakers' complex system of regional recalls, and they've waited for notices to arrive in the mail.
For automakers, the process has been troublesome, too, as they've had to scroll through years of data to determine exactly which makes and models contain Takata's flawed airbags. They've also been grilled by consumers and legislators about the length of time it's taken to identify problems and initiate fixes.
And of course, the federal government has suffered, too -- especially the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has come under fire for its slow, confusing response to the problem.
The upside is, some good stands to be made of this awful situation. More interestingly, that good is coming from an unlikely place: the U.S. Congress.
SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY
Senators like Edward J. Markey (D-MA.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have been outspoken in their criticism of NHTSA in recent weeks. They've been especially upset with the regional recalls that NHTSA approved to replace Takata's faulty airbags.
Initial data suggests that the ammonium nitrate Takata used in its airbag inflators could become unstable in the presence of persistent humidity -- the same atmospheric conditions found in certain parts of the southern U.S. In numerous cases, Takata's airbags have exploded upon deployment, pelting vehicle occupants with shrapnel. That's led to five deaths worldwide, four of which occurred in the U.S.
And so, NHTSA has allowed automakers to conduct regional recalls, often focused on the southern U.S. and territories in warmer latitudes. While there may be science to support that approach -- and in fact, it would seem prudent to give owners in those parts of the country preference when it comes to repairs -- it's been confusing to drivers elsewhere. Those worries were recently exacerbated by an incident involving a Ford Mustang in North Carolina, which isn't currently part of the Takata recall zone.
Under pressure from Congress and other quarters, NHTSA has now asked automakers to expand their Takata recalls to owners nationwide. BMW has agreed to do so, and Chrysler, Ford, Honda, and Mazda say that they will evaluate such a plan, but have not committed to enact it. That may change later today, when representatives from Chrysler, Honda, NHTSA, and Takata testify about the recalls before the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, a new bi-partisan bill has emerged in the U.S. Senate, and it's the direct result of frustration stemming from the Takata and GM ignition switch recalls. The Thune-Nelson Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act is sponsored by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), and it's cosponsored by Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Dean Heller (R-NV).
Like many such bills, the Thune-Nelson Act provides a degree of legal protection for auto industry employees who reveal persistent problems and/or questionable practices to federal regulators. However, it also goes a step further by incentivizing whistleblowing. Specifically, the Act grants the U.S. Transportation Secretary the ability to give whistleblowers as much as 30 percent of the total penalties paid by automakers in cases where fines exceed $1 million.
That could amount to a hefty chunk of change, because the Act also bumps up the maximum fine payable by automakers. If the bill passes, the current cap of $35 million would be removed and replaced with a total based on the number of vehicles affected. The per-vehicle fine could range from $5,000 to $25,000.
Although the bill has support from both major political parties, it still faces significant hurdles. For example, even if it passes the Senate, can it win approval in the more-contentious House? And how are its odds diminished after the new Congress is installed next January? We'll keep you posted.