By Ryan Beene, Crain News Service
WASHINGTON (June 8, 2015) — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has taken firm control of one of the largest and most complex recall actions in U.S. history — orchestrating its many moving parts and setting a rapid pace.
And Takata Corp., the airbag supplier whose defective inflators are at the center of the recall action, is now playing second fiddle.
That power balance appeared to reassure members of a U.S. House subcommittee who heard testimony from NHTSA's administrator and a top Takata executive last week on the course of the recall.
That course changed markedly after May 19, when NHTSA announced a consent decree reached with Takata and exacted an acknowledgment of a defect in the airbag inflators. Before that, Takata insisted it needed to find the root cause of the problem, fretted over replacement parts and steadfastly rebuffed a nationwide recall.
By last week, Takata also had acknowledged for the first time what safety and airbag experts and NHTSA have long suspected: The use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant — along with heat and humidity — is a factor in the airbag inflator ruptures that have turned the safety devices into deadly explosives, killing at least six people and injuring more than 100.
“Before May 19, there was denial of a defect; there was mostly a focus on root cause; there was concern about the supply chain, whether the remedy even worked or not,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told the House panel on June 2.
“Now, NHTSA is in the driver seat.”
And it's stomping on the gas. According to an outline of its recall plan published June 5 in the Federal Register, NHTSA is considering an order to speed the recalls by enlisting more suppliers to make replacement parts. The actions underscore Mr. Rosekind's emphasis on getting recalled inflators replaced quickly, even as the search for a root cause continues.
As the agency sees it, replacing a defective Takata airbag with a newer one, even if it must be replaced again, would do more to improve the safety of the U.S. vehicle fleet immediately than waiting to determine a root cause and a long-term solution.