Automakers have already issued recalls for approximately 25 million vehicles that contain defective airbags manufactured by global supplier Takata. Now federal regulators are examining whether an additional 70 to 90 million airbags pose a threat to the driving public.
Reuters first reported the development Monday. Should federal authorities determine those airbags are also defective, those recalls would bring the total number of vehicles affected in the United States to at least 105 million, roughly 40 percent of the nation's vehicle fleet.
Exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, because some vehicles may have more than one defective inflator installed. But should the number of recalls substantially increase, the problem could overwhelm the auto industry and government regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already estimates all the cars already under recall won't be fixed until 2019.
If tens of millions more cars are affected, its possible millions of motorists will drive around with deadly defects for another decade.
"That number of inflators that may eventually be recalled under that consent order is in the multiple tens of millions." – Gordon Trowbridge
Rather than deploying normally in a car accident, the defective airbags can explode and spray vehicle occupants with lethal amounts of shrapnel. Ten motorists have been killed by the airbags and at least 100 more injured. The latest came last month, when a Georgia motorist, Joel Knight, was killed in South Carolina.
According to the Reuters report, NHTSA is examining whether all airbags that use ammonium nitrate as the propellant need to be recalled. Although investigators have found no root cause for the airbag malfunctions amid years of examining the problem, they believe the chemical may not be safe. In November, Takata agreed to phase the chemical out of future production plans and understood all airbags containing ammonium nitrate may need to be recalled.
Now, that portion of the agreement appears to be coming to fruition.
"All Takata ammonium nitrate inflators are the subject of our investigation," NHTSA spokesperson Gordon Trowbridge told Autoblog Monday. "Under the consent order in November, all those inflators must eventually be recalled in the absence of proof they are safe; and that number of inflators that may eventually be recalled under that consent order is in the multiple tens of millions."
A spokesperson for Takata said the company, which bases its US operations in Auburn Hills, MI, will cooperate with regulators and their automotive customers.
"Under the consent order agreed with NHTSA, Takata committed to a comprehensive framework to address safety concerns with airbag inflators, including through service life testing of inflators not subject to recall. Takata will continue to work cooperatively with NHTSA and automakers to meet all required safety standards."