Japanese auto-parts supplier Takata has agreed to a recall of 33.8 million U.S. vehicles potentially equipped with faulty airbags, making for what is believed to be not only the biggest auto recall in U.S. history, but the single biggest consumer product recall of any kind in U.S. history. The recall concerns certain types of driver- and passenger-side air bag inflators that can potentially detonate improperly in a crash, sending shrapnel into the cabin. So far, six deaths and over 100 injuries worldwide are attributed to the defect.

The recall was prompted by growing pressure from the National Highway Safety Administration, which has urged Takata to action since the fall. So far, affected makes include BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota. Toyota and Honda vehicles are thought to be at the greatest risk. Each of the six deaths and 64 of the injuries are associated with Hondas.

The problem is thought to stem from incorrectly manufactured chemical propellant installed at Takata plants in Moses Lake, Washington, and Monclova, Mexico. The propellant might cause a metal canister in the airbag system to burst in a crash, firing metal fragments through the bag and towards the driver and passengers. The exact cause is currently unknown, but is believed to be moisture-related. 

"Today is a major step forward for public safety," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "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. We will not stop our work until every air bag is replaced."

The U.S. DOT has set up a website for regular updates regarding this and other recalls. Visit it at www.SaferCar.gov/RecallsSpotlight.

Continue reading for the full story.

Why it matters

This newest recall effectively doubles the previous 17 million vehicles recalled in the U.S. for faulty Takata airbags since 2013. With potentially 33.8 million cars affected, the recall exceeds the 31 million bottles of Tylenol recalled in 1982, making it the largest single product recall in U.S. history.

At the moment, the NHTSA is waiting for automakers to supply a complete list of affected vehicles, but given the size and complexity of the recall, the list is not expected to surface for some time.

At the moment, the NHTSA is waiting for automakers to supply a complete list of affected vehicles, but given the size and complexity of the recall, the list is not expected to surface for some time. Without a clear timetable, it’s uncertain how long it’ll take to sort this mess out, but the NHTSA says that fixes will be “prioritized based upon risk, with the vehicles that present the greatest risk in terms of age and geographic location to be serviced first.” However, it’s expected that several years will be required before there are enough replacement parts available.

"From the very beginning, our goal has been simple: a safe air bag in every vehicle," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. "The steps we’re taking today represent significant progress toward that goal. We all know that there is more work to do, for NHTSA, for the automakers, for parts suppliers, and for consumers. But we are determined to get to our goal as rapidly as possible."

2014 was worst year for auto recalls in U.S. history, with more than 60 million vehicles recalled. Unfortunately, this latest development appears to edge 2015 ever closer to breaking that appalling record.

Press Release

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today announced that at the Department’s insistence, air bag manufacturer Takata has acknowledged that a defect exists in its air bag inflators. Takata has agreed to a national recall of certain types of driver and passenger side air bag inflators. These inflators were made with a propellant that can degrade over time and has led to ruptures that have been blamed for six deaths worldwide. The action expands the number of vehicles to be recalled for defective Takata inflators to nearly 34 million.

Secretary Foxx also announced that the Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a Consent Order to Takata. The Consent Order requires the company to cooperate in all future regulatory actions that NHTSA undertakes in its ongoing investigation and oversight of Takata. In addition, NHTSA announced its intent to begin a formal legal process to organize and prioritize the replacement of defective Takata inflators under the agency’s legal authority.

"Today is a major step forward for public safety," Secretary Foxx said. "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. We will not stop our work until every air bag is replaced."

The actions expand regional recalls of Takata passenger-side inflators, currently limited to areas of high absolute humidity, to nationwide recalls involving more than 16 million vehicles. They also expand the current nationwide recall of driver-side inflators to more than 17 million vehicles. It’s anticipated that the remedy of vehicles will be prioritized based upon risk, with the vehicles that present the greatest risk in terms of age and geographic location to be serviced first.

"From the very beginning, our goal has been simple: a safe air bag in every vehicle," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. "The steps we’re taking today represent significant progress toward that goal. We all know that there is more work to do, for NHTSA, for the auto makers, for parts suppliers, and for consumers. But we are determined to get to our goal as rapidly as possible."

The Department has established a new website, www.SaferCar.gov/RecallsSpotlight, to provide regular updates on the status of this and other recalls and of NHTSA’s investigation.

Testing and investigation by Takata, auto manufacturers, and independent researchers have not yet established a definitive root cause of the inflator malfunctions. NHTSA’s analysis of test results and engineering reports from independent organizations points to moisture infiltrating the defective inflators over extended periods of time as a factor.

Over time, that moisture causes changes in the structure of the chemical propellant that ignites when an air bag deploys. The degraded propellant ignites too quickly, producing excess pressure that causes the inflator to rupture and sends metal shards into the passenger cabin that can lead to serious injury or death.

The agency already has held informal discussions with auto makers and parts suppliers in an effort to coordinate one of the largest and most complex product recalls in history. NHTSA also plans to issue notice of intent to open a proceeding that would coordinate the remedy program for Takata inflators in order to address the highest risks quickly.

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