WASHINGTON – Takata will recall another 35 million to 40 million air bag inflators, a stunning increase that will more than double what is already the largest automotive recall in American history, the federal government announced Wednesday.
The recall expansion would bring to as many as 69 million the total number of inflators to be replaced, a gargantuan task that the government predicts will take until the end of 2019 to complete.
The car and truck models included in the expanded recall and the number of additional vehicles affected were not immediately released but will be posted on NHTSA's website in the coming weeks. Most of the expansion is for front passenger air bags that were not part of previous recalls, said Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"This issue is urgent," Rosekind said, urging people to get recalled vehicles fixed as soon as parts are available.
"The science now clearly shows these inflators can become unsafe over time," he said, referring to evidence that chemicals in the devices can degrade, especially when exposed to heat and humidity.
Fourteen manufacturers were involved in the recall, and the expansion includes three additional automakers, Tesla, Jaguar-Land Rover and Fisker.
Takata inflators can explode with too much force and injure people. So far, at least 11 deaths and more than 100 injuries have been reported worldwide.
Replacing so many inflators will be a daunting task because automakers in the current recall of 28.8 million inflators have only been able to fix 28 percent of the cars involved after more than two years. Air bag manufacturers have had trouble making enough replacement inflators, and automakers have had difficulty finding owners and persuading them to get cars repaired.
The expansion will be phased in between now and December 2019, with older cars and those in areas of high heat and humidity getting priority, the agency said.
Takata uses the chemical ammonium nitrate to create an explosion that inflates air bags in a crash. But if the chemical degrades, it can burn too fast, blowing apart a metal canister and spewing shrapnel.
The expanded recall covers all front air bags that do not have a chemical drying agent known as a desiccant. But it does not cover side air bags without the drying agent, nor does it cover another 32 million air bags that have the desiccant.
The government and an independent expert it hired reviewed three independent investigations and confirmed findings that the problem is caused by time, airborne moisture and temperature fluctuations that can degrade the ammonium nitrate, the agency said.
"This recall schedule ensures the inflators will be recalled and replaced before they become dangerous," Rosekind said.
NHTSA officials said vehicles younger than six years old are not currently at risk even if they are in a high humidity region. But as they age, the risk grows, especially in humid areas where temperatures frequently cycle from cool to hot.
Six years is a conservative estimate, and the replacement schedule is aimed at getting vehicles fixed before they are old enough to risk a rupture, the officials said.
Inflators with the drying agent have not been recalled because none has ruptured due to problems with ammonium nitrate, NHTSA said. There was one rupture, but it was due to a manufacturing problem with the canister, the agency has said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat whose state includes several of the injuries and deaths from Takata inflators, said the pace of the recalls still isn't fast enough. "If we wait another three or four years for these to get replaced, more people are likely to die," he said.
Only a few weeks ago NHTSA said it did not have enough data to expand the recalls. But since then, the agency has received the reports pinpointing the cause, enabling it to identify vehicles at risk, NHTSA said.
Takata, which had resisted recalls before being fined last year by NHTSA, said it knows of no ruptures in the batch of inflators that have been added to the recalls, nor does it know of any new data or scientific analysis "that suggests any substantial risk with respect to such vehicles."
Still, Takata said, it agreed to the expansion out of a shared interest in safety.
"This agreement with NHTSA is consistent with our desire to work with regulators and our automaker customers to develop long-term, orderly solutions," CEO Shigehisa Takada said.
Even without the expansion, it would have taken until the end of 2017 for enough replacement parts to be manufactured, said Scott Upham, CEO of Valient Market Research in Philadelphia, which tracks air bag sales.
Upham said other inflator makers such as TRW Automotive, Daicel and Autoliv have agreed to produce even more.
"They're pitching in to the best of their ability, but even with their help, it's going to be very difficult to really ramp up production to cover this," Upham said.
Upham said it will be difficult for Takata to financially survive the expanded recall. He expects the company to file for bankruptcy and emerge as a smaller corporation specializing in seat belts, electronics and air bag assemblies without inflators.
The additional recalls come as authorities in Malaysia investigate two more recent deaths in cars with Takata air bags that ruptured. Honda says the inflators spewed metal fragments in the crashes, but the cause of the deaths has not been determined.