Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi are still selling new vehicles with defective air bags that will eventually need to be recalled, according to a new report.
The report by the top Democrat on the committee that oversees the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the latest to raise concerns about the massive recall of almost 70 million US air bag inflators and nearly 100 million worldwide.
Automakers have confirmed they are continuing to sell some vehicles with ammonium-nitrate inflators without a chemical drying agent, and cited engineering and supply challenges to explain why they are still relying on the faulty airbags.
Although the vehicles are legal to sell, they must be recalled by 2018. Legal experts said that based on previous cases, it was unclear if there could be additional legal liability for selling vehicles subject to future recalls, though if anything goes wrong with those vehicles, they could be subject to product-liability lawsuits.
The inflators, made by Japanese company Takata, can explode with excessive force and spray metal shrapnel. They are suspected in 13 deaths worldwide and more than 100 injuries.
NHTSA said there have been no ruptures in any vehicles built since 2008, suggesting the vehicles won't be prone to danger for six years or more.
The automakers and Takata have been hit with class-action lawsuits from owners and Takata is the subject of a Justice Department criminal investigation.
In February, it emerged that up to 90 million additional Takata airbags may need to be recalled in the US following earlier estimates that just 29 million were dangerous.
According to NHTSA, the vehicles do not become vulnerable to exploding airbags without long-term exposure to high humidity. In the short-term, they are safe to drive and much safer than the older models and there have been no reported deaths or injuries in Takata inflators with a drying agent, the agency said.
NHTSA has taken control of the massive recall from individual automakers, using its legal authority to do so for the first time where it intends to prioritise replacing the oldest inflators in high-humidity areas.
"This may be the first time in history where multiple automakers are selling brand new cars with a known, and potentially deadly, defect," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
It was not clear precisely how many new cars are sold with defective inflators. The affected vehicles include the 2016-2017 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, 2016 Volkswagen CC, 2016 Audi TT and 2017 Audi R8.
"There just aren't enough non-defective replacement airbags to go around," said Rich Newsome, an Orlando lawyer representing people who have sued Takata. "It's kind of like the ticking time bomb, and everyone's betting the bomb won't go off for six years."
"What's troubling here is that consumers are buying new cars not realising they're going to be recalled," said US Senator Bill Nelson who authored the new report. "These cars shouldn't be sold until they're fixed."