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Massive airbag recall could take months to notify owners, years to fix

The largest auto recall in U.S. history has affected 11 major auto companies, 34 million vehicles and dozens of models. It could take the manufacturer Takata two years to make all the replacements. So what’s an owner of one of these vehicles to do? Gwen Ifill talks to David Shepardson of The Detroit News to get insight on Takata’s plan to serve this massive recall.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Millions of car owners face a dilemma. There's a nationwide recall for defective air bags affecting vehicles made by most of the major auto manufacturers. But a bigger recall may also mean a longer wait for repair.

    That was just one of several issues lawmakers laid at the doorstep today of the Takata Corporation, the air bag manufacturer. It's now the largest auto safety recall in U.S. history, nearly 34 million vehicles. And, today, Takata was called before Congress again.

    Executive vice president Kevin Kennedy:

  • KEVIN KENNEDY, Executive Vice President, Takata:

    It is unacceptable to us for even one of our products to fail to perform as intended.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Over time, chemical inflators in Takata air bags have exploded with so much force that they spray metal fragments. The problem is linked to six deaths and more than 100 injuries worldwide since 2003.

  • KEVIN KENNEDY:

    We deeply regret each instance in which someone has been injured or killed. We're committed to doing everything in our power to address the safety concerns raised by air bag ruptures.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kennedy said Takata now plans to change the design of its driver-side air bags. But lawmakers worried about how long it will take. Republican Congressman Fred Upton pressed Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

  • REP. FRED UPTON, R-Mich.:

    What is the goal, the timetable for completely resolving the issue, being able to identify which vehicles have these defective air bags, getting them replaced, making sure the owners are there? What's your hopeful time frame for this to be resolved and we can move to the next issue?

  • MARK ROSEKIND, Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

    At this point, I believe if anybody gave you a number, they don't know what they're talking about.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Rosekind warned his agency is underfunded and already has more than 1,200 other recall campaigns to oversee.

    Let's get more about the questions asked at this hearing and the problems consumers are running into with this recall.

    David Shepardson of The Detroit News covers the auto industry. And he was covering this hearing today.

    David, do we know anything more about the cause of these defects in the air bags, whether it's chemical or design or whatever?

  • DAVID SHEPARDSON, The Detroit News:

    I think the answer is all of the above. In fact, Takata and NHTSA and an independent testing group by the major auto companies think there's a variety of factors, number one, the propellant, ammonium nitrate, and the fact that, under high-humidity circumstances, it appears to be more likely to explode or exit at a higher heat than other propellants, as well as the design of these air bags.

    In fact, as you pointed out, Takata is ending its use of one of these major driver-side air bags. And then issues like the tape used to actually attach the inflator to the air bag. So you have got a lot of different causes, and the fact that you have got 53 million vehicles worldwide, six deaths and 100 injuries, but trying to figure out that needle in a haystack, why are just such a few number failing, but when they do fail, it can be with deadly consequences?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Catastrophic.

  • DAVID SHEPARDSON:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, that's a big number, 53 million worldwide. How many models are we talking about in the U.S.? Because, in the past, when recalls have happened, it's been the actual manufacturer of the vehicle who did the recall. Is that what's happening now? Everyone is scrambling?

  • DAVID SHEPARDSON:

    You have got 11 major auto companies recalling 34 million vehicles in the U.S.; 17 million have previously been recalled, so it's about double that.

    And the answer is, we don't know yet, because, to date, only seven of the eleven companies have notified the government as to the identities of the new vehicles that are being added to the recall, and within that you have got dozens and dozens of models. So to get to the — you know, the end point, where we know all the vehicles are probably, as the administrator was saying, going to take weeks, if not months, and then you have got the issue of just building all the parts.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, OK. So, assume that you were driving one of these cars which are suspect, with the suspect air bag, and you go to the government Web site, and you compare your VIN number, you do all these things right to find out that indeed yours is a car which is under recall. So then how long will it take you to get that fix made?

  • DAVID SHEPARDSON:

    The answer really depends likely on where you are, because the auto companies and Takata are prioritizing the high-humidity areas.

    Because right now they have only built four million replacement kits, they have got 30 million more to build, and they're only going to get up to one million units built per month by September, it could ultimately take two years to build the parts.

    So, if you're in a high-humidity area, chances are you can get the fix done immediately. But check with your dealer. Depending on the stock of your dealer, you may be able to get your vehicle fixed immediately, and some companies are offering loaner vehicles as well. So, there's no good answer. And, remember, it could take up to 60 days for all of the VIN numbers to get inputted.

    So, if you don't see your vehicle recalled, as the administrator said, keep checking once a week for a couple of months potentially.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Because of the size of this recall, is this something that needs to be taken out of the hands of — at least it has come up in the hearing today — of the individual auto companies and be handled by the government instead, by NHTSA?

  • DAVID SHEPARDSON:

    It's a rare example where the auto companies actually agree that NHTSA should take over, as do both the Republicans and Democrats on the committee, because you have got a lot of decisions to make.

    Who gets the parts first? What if one company's air bags are more dangerous than the others? So, the auto companies want NHTSA to take over and decide some of these very sticky decisions and act as an advocate for the U.S. because you have got those 20 million vehicles abroad. And the U.S. could be jockeying with the other countries to see who gets those replacement parts first.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But NHTSA says they're underfunded. How would they handle something this big?

  • DAVID SHEPARDSON:

    Well, they're handling so many different big issues right now. They're in a big fight with Fiat Chrysler over recalls and they're still overseeing GM, and their budget is down 23 percent for defects in real dollars over a decade.

    The White House wants more money for them to triple their defects budget and double their staff, but so far Congress has not really moved on it. But the top Republican on the committee today said if NHTSA made a better request, they'd reconsider. But it's still going to be an uphill battle to convince Congress to give them more money or more authority.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Sounds like the whole thing is an uphill battle for now.

    David Shepardson of The Detroit News, thank you.

  • DAVID SHEPARDSON:

    Thanks, Gwen.

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