U.S. auto safety regulators are in talks with Takata Corp. to add tens of millions of airbag inflators to what already is the biggest auto recall in American history, three people briefed on the matter said Tuesday.
The government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants the Japanese company to agree to a recall that could more than double the 28.8 million Takata inflators that already must be replaced, according to the people who requested anonymity because talks are still ongoing. An announcement could come as soon as Wednesday.
Unlike most airbag makers, Takata's inflators use the chemical ammonium nitrate to fill airbags in a crash. But they can explode with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister and spewing shrapnel into drivers and passengers. At least 11 people have died worldwide and over 100 have been hurt by the inflators. The latest death was a 17-year-old Texas girl who got into a relatively minor crash while driving her family's 2002 Honda Civic.
Neither the government nor Takata would say if more recalls are coming, but under an agreement reached with the company last year, it must prove that the inflators are safe or begin recalling them in 2018.
The government wants Takata to recall airbag inflators that don't have a drying agent called a desiccant, but the size of the recall expansion is unclear, the people said. The expansion is likely to include about 35 million front airbag inflators on U.S. roads without the drying agent.
But that still wouldn't be a total recall of Takata airbags. NHTSA has said there are a total of 85 million unrecalled Takata inflators in U.S. vehicles, some with and without the drying agent.
Such an expansion would cost Takata billions on top of what it already has spent replacing inflators, raising concerns about the company's financial health.
Takata did say in a statement that it is working with NHTSA and automakers "to develop long-term, orderly solutions to these important safety issues."
NHTSA said it has reviewed the findings of three separate investigations into the inflators and "will take all appropriate actions to make sure air bags in Americans' vehicles are safe."
The problem has been linked to older cars with long-term exposure to high humidity. That's why replacement parts are being targeted to areas such as the U.S. Gulf Coast, although many of the cars have been recalled nationwide. No one knows for certain how long it takes for the ammonium nitrate to deteriorate or whether inflators in older cars in cooler, less-humid states might explode in the future. That makes the safety of Takata inflators — which are in driver, passenger and side airbags — a potentially deadly unknown.
NHTSA has said that no inflators that contain the desiccant have ruptured, either in tests or on the road, except for two side airbag ruptures in testing that were blamed on a separate manufacturing defect. The agency based its estimate on data provided by Takata and the 14 car and truck makers that have Takata inflators in their vehicles.
Takata has agreed not to sign any more contracts to sell ammonium nitrate inflators and phase it out of manufacturing by the end of 2018.
Earlier this year, scientists hired by 10 automakers blamed the trouble on a combination of volatile ammonium nitrate, heat and humidity, and inflator containers that may let moisture seep in.