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Takata doubles US airbag recall to record 34m vehicles
[WASHINGTON] Japanese auto parts maker Takata will double the recall of US cars using its potentially deadly airbags to a record nearly 34 million vehicles, US officials said Tuesday.
After refusing for years, Takata is also admitting for the first time that its airbags installed in the cars of 11 major automakers are defective, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced.
Mr Foxx said the problem airbags had been responsible for "at least" five deaths.
But officials admitted it could take years to get enough replacement airbag inflators - the source of the problem - for all the cars equipped with Takata airbags.
"The Department of Transportation is taking the proactive steps necessary to ensure that defective inflators are replaced with safe ones as quickly as possible, and that the highest risks are addressed first," Mr Foxx said.
"We will not stop our work until every airbag is replaced." The recall, the largest in US auto history, aims to replace problematic inflators in the airbags which can cause them to deploy with explosive force, sending potentially lethal shrapnel into drivers and passengers.
Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said the automakers that installed the Takata airbags in their cars and trucks would now have to announce specific vehicle recalls.
Those automakers are Honda, Toyota, General Motors, BMW and Ford, among others.
"From the very beginning, our goal has been simple: a safe air bag in every vehicle," Rosekind told a press conference.
"The steps we're taking today represent significant progress toward that goal." Setting the expanded recall in motion, Takata Corp and its US subsidiary TK Holdings officially agreed in a consent order with the NHTSA that a defect related to the inflators raised safety issues.
The company issued four separate defect reports to the agency, one dealing with driver-side airbags and three with passenger-side units.
The defect could lead to "over-aggressive combustion" that could cause the body of the inflator to rupture, it said.
In that event, "metal fragments could pass through the airbag cushion material, which may result in injury or death to vehicle occupants." The issue came to the forefront last year with congressional hearings in which Takata executives appeared evasive and uncooperative.
The NHTSA began fining the company US$14,000 a day in February this year to pressure it to supply company documentation on internal probes into airbag issues dating back more than a decade.
Mr Rosekind said the accumulated penalties have topped US$1 million, but the daily fine has been suspended since Takata "stepped up" to cooperate with NHTSA investigators.
The company could still face more civil and criminal fines from various government agencies, depending on results of ongoing investigations and its cooperation with investigators, according to the consent order.
In addition, in conceding the defect, Takata further opened itself up to possible lawsuits from car owners and victims.
A number of class-action lawsuits have been initiated since last year that could possibly lead to substantial damage payments.
Five deaths in the United States, and one abroad, have been linked to the airbag problem, and automakers have already recalled millions of vehicles.
But Mr Rosekind acknowledged two key problems.
First is that the cause of the inflator explosions is not completely understood. Investigators know that hot, humid weather is prone to causing the problem, but that does not explain all the incidents.
Secondly, the supply of replacement inflators remains small, and increasing production has been slow.
"This is, over the long haul, going to be very involved and complex," Rosekind said. "It could be some years."