The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) just announced an almost unbelievably large expansion of the ongoing Takata airbag debacle, which has been blamed directly for 10 deaths and over 100 injuries. Affected airbags can send shrapnel at vehicle occupants when they deploy; the ammonium nitrate propellant inside the airbag modules can degrade over time when exposed to high humidity, which in turn causes them to burn too quickly and cause damage to modules. In its press release, NHTSA calls the situation "the largest and most complex safety recall in US history."
Japanese automotive component supplier Takata has been dealing with the recalls — which affect virtually every major automotive brand — since NHTSA announced the first round in May of last year. With today's announcement, the recall grows from 28.8 million inflators to somewhere between 64 and 69 million. It's such a staggering figure for a key safety component that NHTSA says the recalls will be conducted in phases all the way through the end of 2019, making sure that the most dangerous inflators — the oldest ones, and those exposed to the most humidity — can be replaced first.
Potentially nearly 70 million airbags are impacted
At this point, essentially every airbag inflator Takata has ever made that doesn't include a moisture-absorbing chemical known as a desiccant has been recalled. But the company isn't off the hook for the desiccant-equipped components: NHTSA is requiring Takata to also study whether those inflators are safe, and if it can't come up with proof that they are, it'll be required to eventually recall those as well.
NHTSA's consumer-facing Takata recall site shows that only 8.2 million airbags have been fixed so far, leaving automakers, service centers, and regulators with a lot of work left to do. "If you feel uncomfortable continuing to drive your vehicle before the recall repair has been performed on your vehicle, you should contact your dealer and ask for a loaner until an interim or a final repair is completed. Dealers and manufacturers are not required to provide you a loaner car, but it can never hurt to ask," NHTSA's FAQ reads. That's not a lot of comfort.