Calling the company a "bad actor" in a push for safer American roads, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the government would levy a $14,000 per-day fine against Takata until it fulfills its responsibilities outlined in two special orders issued late last year.
"Safety is a shared responsibility, and Takata's failure to fully cooperate with our investigation is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," he said. "For each day that Takata fails to fully cooperate with our demands, we will hit them with another fine."
Takata has turned over roughly 2.4 million documents since investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued two special orders in late December which compel the company to cooperate. But Takata hasn't helped the federal agency discern what's in those documents.
"What we have asked for is help understanding what's in those documents," NHTSA spokesperson Gordon Trowbridge said. "That's what we're after."
Investigators visited Takata's testing facility in Auburn Hills, MI, last week, and held face-to-face discussions with the company's technicians as they continued to search for the root cause of the airbag defects, which have resulted in dozens of recalls that have affected at least 17 million cars since 2008.
Only about two million of those cars have been repaired thus far. Reaching out to affected drivers to ensure they get their cars fixed remains a high priority for NHTSA, which recently unveiled a website on which motorists can enter their vehicle identification numbers and see whether their cars have open recalls.
Friday's announcement seemed to have caught Takata off guard.
"We are surprised and disappointed by the DOT/NHTSA letter and press release today, and we strongly disagree with their characterization that we have not been fully cooperating with them," a company spokesperson said in a written statement.
Should Takata continue to fall short of the agency's compliance threshold, NHTSA officials said they could hold administrative depositions on the defective airbags, which would require that company executives answer questions in person and under oath. The officials also warned they could refer the matter to the Department of Justice for potential criminal investigation.
Though the dispute centered over Takata's apparent failure to make sense of the documents it has presented thus far, worsening relations between the company and regulator also appeared to be affected by another factor.
In a letter to the company, NHTSA chief counsel O. Kevin Vincent wrote that the documents, "coupled with Takata's conduct earlier this week on a separate matter related to the agency's ongoing investigation, we have concluded that Takata is neither being forthcoming ... nor cooperative."
Trowbridge did not elaborate on the conduct in question, citing the ongoing investigation.
He said NHTSA will continue to monitor Takata's internal testing procedures in Auburn Hills, and also said the agency wants access to the results of airbag tests conducted by a consortium of car companies affected by the Takata problems.
Congress held hearings on the defective airbags, which are installed in the cars of at least 10 automakers. The problems with the airbags have been ongoing since Isuzu issued the first recall in 2001, and Takata's decades-long mishandling of the problem has become a symbol of the industry's dismissive attitude toward safety standards.
In November, The New York Times reported Takata carried out secret tests on defective airbags in 2004, but never reported the results to federal investigators.
Instead of deploying normally in car accidents, Takata's faulty airbags explode. In some cases, drivers have been showered with lethal amounts of metal shrapnel, and bled to death.
Foxx is citing Takata's defiance in his stump for the Obama administration's Grow America Act, which would nearly triple funding for the enforcement division within the NHTSA and hike the agency's overall budget to an annual $908 million.
Passage of the act would also boost the financial punishments NHTSA can levy against automotive companies. The Act would increase the daily punishment from $7,000 to $25,000 and raise the maximum fine from $35 million to $300 million.