Yesterday morning, we were optimistic. Rumors suggested that the confusing web of Takata airbag recalls would soon become simpler and more streamlined. If things went as planned:
1. Takata would agree to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's demands and declare many of its driver-side airbags defective, regardless of whether they've been exposed to humidity; and,
2. NHTSA would overturn its own highly criticized decision to permit regional replacement of Takata airbags, paving the way for a nationwide recall.
Sadly, neither of those things happened. In fact, the situation got worse, becoming exponentially more complicated for Takata, automakers, federal regulators, and owners of affected vehicles.
Worst of all, those complications will likely lead to recall delays, which could have deadly consequences for drivers.
The Takata saga took three unpleasant turns on Tuesday:
1. Takata refused to admit that its driver-side airbags are inherently flawed (meaning that the rumors posted yesterday in Japan's Nikkei were false). The company stood firmly by its claim that recalls of driver-side airbags are only needed in areas with consistently high humidity, like states along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Takata made such claims in spite of the fact that NHTSA presented evidence to the contrary in a sternly worded letter delivered to the company last week.
2. The auto industry insisted that more study was needed to determine whether nationwide recalls should be implemented. Takata isn't the only one arguing against a nationwide airbag recall. Automakers are reluctant to launch such a process, too, afraid of the time and energy those recalls would take to carry out -- not to mention the brand damage they could cause and the liability to which automakers might be exposed.
And so, Toyota issued a press release calling for what amounts to a focus group on Takata airbags:
"Toyota today called for a coordinated industry-wide joint initiative to independently test Takata airbag inflators that have been the subject of recent recalls. The goal of this initiative is to address affected automakers’ issues related to the airbag inflator recalls and supplement testing being undertaken by Takata in order to address customer concerns about safety."
Anyone want to guess how quickly Toyota will be able to get other automakers onboard, begin tests, analyze results, publish them, and, if necessary, begin recalls? Here's an answer: not quickly enough.
3. NHTSA refused to demand a nationwide recall of Takata's passenger-side airbags. The agency insists that it wants a nationwide recall of driver-side airbags -- a recall complicated by the fact that (a) Takata hasn't declared its driver-side airbags inherently flawed (see item #1 above), and (b) automakers haven't agreed to undertake such a wide-ranging recall (see item #2). However, NHTSA hasn't even floated the idea of a coast-to-coast recall of passenger-side airbags.
NHTSA hasn't fully explained its reluctance on that point. Our guess is that the agency is attempting to be logical: cars can't operate without drivers, so it would seem reasonable that replacing driver-side safety devices should take priority over replacing passenger-side airbags.
The problem is, both versions of Takata's airbags use ammonium nitrate, which is responsible for the airbag explosions that have injured dozens of people and killed five. If you follow the news, that's no surprise: ammonium nitrate is a volatile compound, and it's caused numerous explosions at manufacturing facilities over the past few years. It's also one of the materials used in the Oklahoma City bombing. In fact, it's so explosive, its sale is regulated by the Office of Homeland Security.
Why aren't devices from other airbag manufacturers exploding upon deployment? Because Takata is the only company that opted to use ammonium nitrate.
This absurdity is why we need regulators. No one in the auto industry wants to make a decision regarding these recalls, so they've collectively passed the buck, instituting administrative delays and calling for focus groups (which is simply an administrative delay with a crueler, gentler face).
NHTSA's sole job is to ensure public safety. The word "safety" is part of the agency's name. If NHTSA isn't willing to live up to that role, it should change its name and step aside so another agency can do what's needed -- like slapping Takata with the maximum fine of $35 million and demanding a nationwide recall of the company's airbags.
Frankly, we're a bit surprised that automakers haven't been more proactive on this front. Their hemming and hawing stands to tarnish their images among consumers -- and open them up to lawsuits.
If you own one of the vehicles on the Takata recall list and you've received a recall notice, have your car serviced immediately. If you haven't received such a notice and have concerns, we encourage you to express those concerns directly to the automaker. If enough consumers complain, that could shift the discussion and put these recalls on the fast track.