“We have been advised by suppliers that the development and production of a replacement inflator for a particular model by a supplier other than Takata could take a minimum of one year, and could take longer,” Mr. Triantafyllos wrote.
BMW is not trying to obtain replacement airbags from other suppliers because “the BMW air bag design is unique to Takata and to the affected BMW vehicles,” wrote Sam Campbell, department head of BMW's safety engineering systems.
Mr. Campbell estimated that a switch to other suppliers would take two years and “divert BMW's limited available resources.”
Autoliv and TRW
The auto makers threw cold water on speculation that Takata — the world's second-largest producer of inflators — could be assisted easily by its rivals. But that speculation persists.
In testimony last week at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said the agency had held discussions with unnamed suppliers that might supplement Takata's production.
Mr. Friedman did not identify those suppliers. But in recent weeks, the CEOs of Autoliv and TRW — the world's No. 1 and No. 3 airbag producers — confirmed that they had been contacted about possible production of replacement inflators.
If Autoliv and TRW can't help anytime soon, how many inflators can Takata produce?
Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata's senior vice president for global quality assurance, testified at the Senate committee hearing that the company's plant in Monclova, Mexico, produces 300,000 replacement inflators a month.
After two new production lines are up and running, Mr. Shimizu said, the company will boost monthly production to 450,000.
Takata also is transferring some machinery from Monclova — which is close to full capacity — to a plant in Freiberg, Germany, BMW's Mr. Campbell noted. This and other production moves in Europe could boost production in mid-December, he said.
Despite Takata's slow production ramp-up, auto makers have had little trouble obtaining enough inflators to meet demand — so far.
That's because auto makers have struggled to coax car owners to respond to the recall — especially used-car owners, who can be difficult to trace because of vehicle ownership changes.
As of Nov. 5, eight auto makers said they had recalled nearly 7.5 million vehicles but had repaired only 437,936, according to the companies' reports to NHTSA.
But at last week's hearing in Washington, D.C., the Senate committee was not pleased about the recall's slow progress.
“We'll be waiting two to three years for Americans to be safe on American roads in these cars, because [the inflators] can't be replaced,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
But those motorists who did respond to the recall have not encountered big delays.
At Greg May Honda in Waco, Texas, the service department does two to 20 Takata-related repairs a day, said owner Greg May. Ninety percent of the time, the dealership can get the parts quickly and complete the repair within a day, he said.
Customers have been “pretty understanding” about the recall, Mr. May said, but if Honda complies with NHTSA's request to expand its airbag recall nationwide, he worries that the parts flow will dry up and customer satisfaction will drop.
“That is something that concerns me because we've been able to satisfy our customers in such a short period of time,” said Mr. May, whose store sells about 1,800 new and used Honda vehicles a year. “Everybody wants everything right this minute.”
It takes 40 to 60 minutes to replace the Takata airbag inflator module in a recalled vehicle, Mr. May said, noting that Honda has been good about informing auto dealers on parts availability. His parts manager receives factory updates “pretty much weekly, sometimes faster,” Mr. May said.
Other dealers also have told Automotive News that they can keep up with demand, but inventories of replacement inflators may tighten up if federal regulators demand a nationwide recall.
Mindful of the bottleneck, several senators pressured NHTSA during last week's hearing to ask other suppliers to supplement Takata's inflator production.
During questioning, Sen. Blumenthal called on Mr. Friedman to use powers under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act to order auto makers to take replacement inflators from suppliers other than Takata.
“You have the power to order them to break exclusivity agreements, to share proprietary information,” Sen. Blumenthal said, to which Mr. Friedman replied: “If I can determine that that can be done safely, absolutely I will.”
The production bottleneck will be spotlighted this week when Mr. Friedman tells the Senate committee how long it will take to find out whether other suppliers can supplement Takata's production.
Said Sen. Blumenthal: “I hope that it will be measured in days, and not weeks.”
Reporters Ryan Beene and Jamie LaReau contributed to this report, which appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.