The tale of Takata and its deadly airbags has all the hallmarks of an epic saga: chaos (among automakers, the public, and regulatory agencies), hubris, and a stubborn reluctance to admit defeat (the latter two among Takata's top brass).
Also like an epic saga, it has also gone on for a long time -- too long. And if recent revelations are any guide, there's no end in sight.
That's because, throughout the week, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan each added more vehicles to the already-massive Takata airbag recall. How many? More than 11 million.
The Takata airbag fiasco began at the end of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st, when the Japanese company began using ammonium nitrate as a propellant in its airbags. So far as we know, Takata is one of the only suppliers -- if not the only one -- to use that compound.
Why would Takata use it? Because it's cheap and readily available, with many commercial applications. Unfortunately, ammonium nitrate can become very, very unstable, which is why industries that use it tend to do so in very controlled circumstances -- controlled in a way that, say, airbag deployment during an automobile accident is not.
In fact, ammonium nitrate was one of the compounds used two decades ago in the Oklahoma City bombing. It is now closely regulated by the Office of Homeland Security.
Over the past several years, automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Takata itself began receiving reports of exploding airbags. The devices would rip upon deployment, pelting vehicle occupants with shrapnel from the airbag system. To date, these explosions have been linked to at least six deaths, most of which have occurred in the U.S., and all of which have occurred in Honda vehicles. (Honda, FWIW, is Takata's biggest customer.)
Investigators are still trying to determine what's making Takata's airbags explode. Their best guess is that the incidents are linked to high humidity. As a result, many recalls have been focused on humid areas of the U.S., like states along the Gulf Coast.
To complicate matters, however, automakers, regulators, and Takata itself continue to distinguish between driver-side airbags and passenger-side airbags. NHTSA has pushed for nationwide recalls of driver-side airbags, but has been perfectly content to limit recalls of passenger-side airbags to high-humidity areas. Given the millions of vehicles affected by these recalls, the distinction between geographic areas and drivers-side vs. passenger-side devices has been very confusing to owners.
And as if that weren't enough, Takata continues to dig in its heels, trying to convince NHTSA and others that there are too many uncertainties around the airbag flaws to warrant full recalls. (Much like the tobacco industry spent decades trying to convince Americans that there was no proven link between smoking and lung cancer.) To date, Takata has refused to cooperate fully with NHTSA, which at last count was costing the company $14,000 per day.
That brings us to this week, when three major automakers added 11.5 million more vehicles to the Takata recall roster. The worldwide total now stands at around 36 million.
Last fall, NHTSA provided a list of every recalled U.S. make and model, but because the recalls have continued to roll out in dribs and drabs -- still limited by state and the type of airbag being replaced -- that list is no longer accurate. For safety's sake, we recommend that you visit NHTSA's recall website and run a search using your car's own vehicle identification number, or VIN. That's the best way of telling whether your car is affected.
HONDA: TBA (none in North America)
According to Detroit News, Honda recalled an additional 4.9 million vehicles from model-years 2004-2008 to replace Takata-brand airbags. However, none of those vehicles are North American models. Most appear to be registered in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
LEXUS: 2005-2007 Lexus SC
Toyota added the Lexus SC to the Takata recall. However, because this is a recall meant to replace passenger-side airbags, it's focused on high-humidity areas. According to NHTSA, it is limited to vehicles that were "sold, or ever registered, in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Saipan and American Samoa". The recall notice isn't specific about what "along the Gulf Coast means", but we'd assume it covers lower Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Recall notices were to have been mailed to owners on Wednesday, May 13.
According to the New York Times, Nissan is recalling 1.56 million more vehicles equipped with Takata airbags. However, the company hasn't yet provided a list of makes or models, nor has it indicated whether any of the vehicles are registered in the U.S.
PONTIAC: 2005-2007 Pontiac Vibe
Toyota has added the Pontiac Vibe to the recall list. (As you might recall, the Vibe is essentially a rebadged Toyota Matrix, and the two were both made at the NUMMI plant in California as a joint project of GM and Toyota. NUMMI is now a manufacturing facility for Tesla Motors.) As with the Lexus SC above, this recall is limited to high-humidity states. Recall notices should've been mailed to owners on Wednesday. If you have questions, call General Motors customer service at 800-762-2737
Toyota also recalled 5 million more Toyota vehicles, 637,000 of which are registered in the U.S. Just to make matters more confusing, Toyota's recalls are broken down into three groups:
Group 1: 2005-2007 Toyota Corolla, 2005-2007 Toyota Matrix (aka the Corolla Matrix), 2005-2007 Toyota Sequoia, and 2005-2006 Toyota Tundra. Like the Lexus and Pontiac recalls above, these are meant to replace passenger-side airbags and are limited to vehicles in areas with persistent, high humidity. Notices were sent to owners on May 13.
Group 2: 2004 Toyota Sequoia, 2003-2004 Toyota Tundra. Although these trucks are being recalled to replace passenger-side airbags, the recall isn't geographically limited. In other words, every associated Sequoia and Tundra will have its passenger airbag replaced. Recalled notices hit the mail on Wednesday.
Group 3: 2004-2005 Toyota RAV4. This is the only group that's been recalled to replace driver-side airbags, and it affects vehicles from coast to coast. (nearly 160,000 in all). The recall is limited to RAV4s made between May 13, 2003 and October 25, 2005. Unfortunately, Toyota doesn't have enough replacement parts to carry out this fix at the moment, though it hopes to have them by mid-July. If it does, owners will receive a full recall notice at that time. If it doesn't, owners will get an interim notice, which will be followed by another letter when parts are available.
For additional details about any recall in this group, contact Toyota customer service at 800-331-4331, or call NHTSA at 888-327-4236.