The chief of the regulatory agency charged with keeping motorists safe told Congress on Tuesday that a detailed plan to coordinate the largest consumer-product recall in US history won't be ready until the fall.
In testimony before a House subcommittee examining the supplier's deadly airbag problem, Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the agency is developing a plan with auto manufacturers and suppliers to fix more than 34 million endangered cars made by 11 different carmakers. But he emphasized it's going to take time because the scope of the problem is unprecedented.
"At this point, if anybody gave you a (timeframe), they don't know what they're talking about," he said, later saying he hoped to have a more substantial plan in place by the fall.
Even then, the problem with the exploding airbags could take years to resolve. In the company's first public comments in six months, Takata vice president Kevin Kennedy told lawmakers the manufacturer continues to use a controversial chemical in airbags being sold in new cars today, despite the fact experts fear it could be the cause of airbag ruptures that have spewed fatal amounts of metal shrapnel at vehicle occupants.
Further, Kennedy said Tuesday that some of the airbags that were supposed to remedy the problem have themselves been recalled, slowing efforts to fix a problem that has killed six motorists and injured dozens more. Right now, Takata is producing 740,000 replacement kits per month, and hopes to increase that production to 1 million per month by the fall.
Although Takata and some auto manufacturers knew about the exploding airbag problem in 2004, no definitive cause of the problem has been found.
That's a source of frustration for many members of the House panel who asked questions Tuesday, including Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), who lambasted Kennedy for dodging questions and the company's long-standing foot-dragging with regulators.
"You can tell the frustration this panel is feeling, and there's a young lady who's scarred sitting over your shoulder," Mullin said, referring to Angelina Sujata, a Takata airbag victim in attendance Tuesday.
"You replaced them with things that are still faulty? There's no excuse for that," Mullin continued. "A screw-up is a screw-up, but take the blame. Who's going to be responsible for this? You don't know? What do you mean you don't know? I just wonder, I'm sitting here maybe thinking we haven't been moving very fast because you haven't took ownership of it. At the same time, we have no telling how many vehicles are out there, with more young ladies or young men, who are going to bear the scars again."
The tense exchange was underscored by repeated questions from lawmakers over Takata's questionable use of ammonium nitrate in its airbags. Kennedy said the company aims to "transition as quickly as possible" away from using ammonium nitrate inflators and acknowledged the chemical appeared to be one of the factors that contributes to explosive deployments. Yet it remains a part of airbags in some product lines.
Some of those ammonium-nitrate airbags are being sold with desiccant and some without. Desiccant is a substance that helps absorb humidity, which has also been cited as a possible cause of the lethal explosions. The company said it plans to phase out its use of ammonium nitrate entirely and instead use guanidine nitrate.
The switch can't come fast enough for lawmakers. Asked if consumers buying cars today with airbags that contained ammonium nitrate should be concerned about their safety, Kennedy had no easy answers.
He said a consent order with NHTSA may determine whether consumers should be informed of this, to which Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) responded: "You're not providing me with much reassurance with that answer."
Even without knowing how much the ammonium nitrate contributes to the root cause or causes of the problem, Rosekind said it was imperative that NHTSA take action and compel the recall of 34 million vehicles, which represent an estimated 15 percent of the nation's entire light-duty vehicle fleet.
He likened the vexing problem to one he faced as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which couldn't pinpoint the cause of lithium-ion battery fires aboard the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The NTSB grounded the entire fleet.
"That required Boeing to find a remedy without knowing the root cause," Rosekind said Tuesday. "We have that possibility – without a root cause – to get a solution. You've just raised one of the core questions we've been asking. How long do you wait? We can't wait a year."
Yet with so questions remaining and airbags that contain ammonium nitrate still being installed in cars and automakers still scrambling to determine which vehicles are affected by the ongoing recalls, consumers may wind up waiting months or years for replacements and answers.
For now, Rosekind said consumers can use their vehicle identification numbers on NHTSA's SaferCar.gov website to see whether their cars are affected. With the recalls expanding so often, he advised they check back often to see if the status has changed. How often?
"Weekly," he said.