Federal auto safety regulators called Tuesday on Japanese auto parts supplier Takata to expand a recall over dangerous air bags from southern states to nationwide, potentially affecting millions of additional vehicles — and it was not immediately clear whether the company would comply or which models were affected.
The Takata air bag defect has grown in recent weeks into a full-blown crisis, with 10 automakers issuing recalls based on geography affecting some 8 million vehicles in the United States and 12 million worldwide built between 2002 and 2008. The air bags contain an explosive that, if exposed to high humidity and heat over time, can inflate with too much force, sending metal shards flying through the bag.
Five deaths, all in Honda vehicles, and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the faulty bags. Automakers have said they were limiting recalls to states such as Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico in part to ensure that replacement parts in short supply reach those most at risk first. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday that based on two new incidents — including an August crash where a driver in North Carolina was injured by the air bag in a 2007 Ford Mustang — it was no longer satisfied with a regional recall.
"We called Takata and called for them to issue a defect notification nationwide fro driver-side air bags of a certain design," said David Friedman, acting chief of NHTSA. "If Takata refuses, we will take appropriate action to force them."
Takata's initial response, Friedman said, was "an unwillingness to move forward."
Friedman said the agency did not yet have a count of how many vehicles would be affected or even which specific models were now under concern. He said the inflators in question now were supplied to Ford, Mazda, Honda, Chrysler and BMW; Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, General Motors and Subaru have also issued Takata-related recalls.
NHTSA has the legal power to force recalls after a lengthy court process, but rarely uses it; automakers and parts suppliers often agree to "voluntary" recalls to avoid a government ruling that leaves them open to massive legal liabilities in U.S. courts.
Takata already faces a criminal grand jury investigation into whether it withheld data showing the air bags were defective. It has previously said it was cooperating with NHTSA, and had blamed the problems on a variety of causes.
In a statement, Takata did not agree to a full recall, saying it was awaiting its own testing, adding it "is prepared to move forward with an appropriate expansion of the recalls should the scientific analysis and evaluation as conducted by Takata and NHTSA indicate a risk to safety beyond the current scope of the field actions.”
Michael Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation, the largest chain of new-car dealerships in the United States, said last week that his company had 10 different instructions with how to handle vehicles potentially affected by the Takata recalls, calling it a "tower of Babel." The chain has stopped selling used vehicles affected by the recall until replacement parts are available.
When asked by owners if their cars are safe, "I have a range of answers that go from 'the occurrences are so rare, keep driving,' to 'disconnect the air bag' to 'put a sticker on it,'" Jackson said.
Friedman said NHTSA was working to compile a list of affected vehicles "as soon as humanely possible." Owners can check whether their vehicle has been recalled by using this VIN lookup tool from NHTSA.