Car safety regulators in the US have demanded that a Japanese supplier of potentially lethal airbags expands a regional recall to make it nationwide.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) criticised Takata for what it called "an unwillingness to move forward" on a nationwide recall, and said the company needs to be open with the US public about the risks of its airbags.
The airbags are used by five major automakers and have been linked to five fatalities including four in the US and one in Malaysia. They have been shown to sometimes rupture on deployment, shooting shrapnel into the car.
Around 16 million cars with Takata airbags have been recalled worldwide over the past six years, with more than 10 million of those in the US and Takata, the NHTSA, Honda and Chrysler have been called to testify at a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Thursday.
So far the firms involved have attempted a targeted approach by recalling 4.1 million cars – mostly made by Takata's biggest client Honda – in hot and humid areas where the airbags may be prone to fail, such as Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and parts of Texas along the Gulf of Mexico.
In a call with reporters, NHTSA deputy administrator David Friedman declined to estimate how many more cars would be included in a nationwide recall, but said the expansion was prompted by an August incident involving a 2007 Ford Mustang in North Carolina, outside the area of the regional recalls.
The agency ordered Ford, Mazda Motor, Honda, Chrysler and BMW to send notifications for replacement driver-side airbags to consumers quickly. "We will begin a process both with Takata and the automakers to force them to recall all affected vehicles", Friedman said.
Ford, Honda, Mazda and Chrysler said they would continue to cooperate with NHTSA and plan to evaluate their call for a national recall, but each stopped short of saying they would expand beyond the current set of cars they are fixing. BMW is already recalling airbags nationally.
Takata spokesman Alby Berman said the company would cooperate with regulators and automakers if an expanded recall is required, but noted that "of almost 1,000 passenger and driver inflators from outside the high-humidity areas that have been evaluated to date, none have ruptured".
"Takata is concerned that a national recall could potentially divert replacement airbags from where they're needed, putting lives at risk," he said in a statement.
Takata has said it would add two production lines at its Monclova, Mexico plant in January to make replacement airbag inflators, but workers there told Reuters that a single line has a typical quota of around 200 inflators an hour, meaning it could take five months to make one million inflators working around the clock on two lines, five days a week.
NHTSA said it is pressuring Takata to ramp up production of replacement parts and has said it will explore using other suppliers to help with production if needed.
NHTSA agreed in June to allow automakers to do a regional recall and use their discretion in deciding how and when to notify customers and replace faulty parts, resulting in confusion for car owners receiving mixed messages.
Friedman criticised Takata for resisting when NHTSA this week called on it to issue a defect notification nationwide for airbags of a certain design. "Takata's initial response was an unwillingness to move forward, and frankly, that is one of the reasons we are talking to you today, because I believe everyone needs to understand that Takata needs to act," he said.
Asked about Friedman's comment, Takata said: "We have been dealing sincerely with US authorities and ... will continue to do so, prioritising customers' safety."
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