DETROIT – Japan’s Takata Corp. refused to comply with a U.S. government demand for an expanded recall of its air bags that can explode and shoot out shrapnel, and instead passed along the crucial decision to automakers.
The response, which the U.S. immediately criticized as inadequate, sets the stage for a showdown between the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the company, when they appear before U.S. Congress on Dec. 3.
So far, 14 million vehicles worldwide have been recalled due to the air bag problem, including 8 million in the U.S. Takata has yet to pinpoint a cause, even though the recalls started a decade ago.
The U.S. government wants Takata and automakers to add millions of cars across the U.S. to recalls now limited to areas with high humidity. The automakers indicated that they want to do their own testing, in addition to tests underway at Takata.
The deadline had been set for midnight Dec. 2 for Takata to send a response to NHTSA, which was demanding a national recall of driver-side air bags or face civil fines and legal action.
In Tokyo, Takata spokesman Hideyuki Matsumoto said the company’s response to NHTSA was “neither a yes nor a no.” Takata agreed to cooperate with the automakers on whatever they decide, he said.
NHTSA was not satisfied with Takata’s reply, calling it “disappointing,” adding that it was reviewing the response to determine the next steps.
“Takata shares responsibility for keeping drivers safe and we believe anything short of a national recall does not live up to that responsibility,” it said.
On Dec. 3, Takata and some of the automakers are set to appear at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on the matter.
Takata on Dec. 2 said it had formed a panel to investigate its inflator manufacturing process. Takata also said it’s working with top scientists who specialize in propellants, inflators, and air bag systems to evaluate its inflators.
The company said it would “produce additional replacement units to support any further recalls that may be announced by our customers.”
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. have been calling for an industrywide investigation, but they did not have an immediate comment on the Takata response.
Honda said in Tokyo its previous position that it was “seriously considering” a nationwide recall was unchanged.
Toshitake Inoshita, a Nissan Motor Co. spokesman in Yokohama headquarters, also had no comment, stressing the problems were still under investigation.
In a statement, Toyota said it will ask the industry to hire an independent engineering company, and the affected companies would share results to figure out recall repairs. So far, General Motors, Nissan, Subaru, Chrysler and Ford have agreed to cooperate.
Some of the biggest recalls so far have been limited to high-humidity areas in the Southern U.S., plus Hawaii and some territories.
The U.S. agency has said that prolonged exposure to airborne moisture can cause the inflator propellant to burn faster than designed. That can rupture metal inflator canisters. At least five deaths worldwide have been blamed on the problem.
NHTSA demanded the national recall of driver’s air bags after receiving reports of two incidents that occurred outside the recall zone. The demand covers vehicles made by Ford, Honda, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW, generally from the 2008 model year and earlier.
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said automakers likely are fed up with how long it’s taking Takata to find the cause. But they also want their own probe so it looks like they’re protecting customers, he said.
Takata’s driver and passenger inflators are similar and use the same propellant, so Brauer wonders why all the problem air bags aren’t being recalled nationally.
The government says it doesn’t have data to warrant a national recall of passenger side air bags.
Regulators, Brauer said, may be worried about Takata’s ability to handle such a large recall financially. There are more than 30 million Takata air bags in the U.S. and 100 million worldwide.
Takata could face the wrath of an agency that’s been criticized for moving too slowly on safety issues, Brauer said. “They can’t appear to be shirking that responsibility yet again,” he said.
By Tom Krisher and Yuri Kageyama. Marcy Gordon contributed from Washington, D.C.