WASHINGTON — Air bag maker Takata Corp. gave in to US regulators on Tuesday, agreeing to what will be the largest automotive recall in history as investigators continue to search for the root cause of a defect that has killed at least six people.
About 34 million cars are now on a list for an air bag replacement, double the number that had already been recalled. With vehicles from 11 automakers and a severe shortage of repair parts, it could take years for all of the cars to be made safe, said Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"As far as we know, this is the largest recall in auto history," Rosekind said at a press conference. "Others are doing research and suggest that it could be one of the largest if not the largest of all of consumer recalls."
As part of a consent order, Tokyo-based Takata agreed to make the recall nationwide and submit its parts to the US government for testing. The agreement offers a way for Takata to resolve a global auto-safety crisis that has made it a target for lawsuits and hurt its standing with the automakers it supplies.
"We are pleased to have reached this agreement with NHTSA, which presents a clear path forward to advancing safety and restoring the trust of automakers and the driving public," Takata's chief executive, Shigehisa Takada, said in a statement.
The company agreed to pay more than $1 million in accrued fines for it failure to cooperate with the investigation. Additional fines are possible.
The case involves air bag inflators that can deploy with too much force, breaking apart and sending shards of metal and plastic into passenger compartments. Takata, its automaker customers, and US regulators have had trouble getting to the root cause of the problem, and millions of vehicle owners are still unable to get their cars fixed because of a shortage of parts.
"Takata should have been much more aggressive before now in protecting passengers through a national recall," said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. "In the meantime, the Department of Justice should be taking appropriate action to investigate and impose penalties."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been pressuring Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., and eight other automakers affected by the recalls to speed up the repairs and work with other air bag suppliers to obtain parts. It also has demanded that Takata turn over more documents and data from the devices that have been removed from recalled cars.
In February, the agency began fining Takata $14,000 a day for not completely answering questions about air bag inflater production and company efforts to investigate the explosions.
It said at the time that most of the 2.4 million pages of documents the company had produced did not actually relate to the agency's specific inquiries.
The agency has become more aggressive after it was lambasted by Congress for failing to be more active prior to last year's revelation that about 2.6 million General Motors Co. cars had a known ignition-switch defect that went unrecalled for years.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "has done a 180-degree turn on how they're handling these safety investigations," said Kevin Dean, who represents plaintiffs in several air bag lawsuits, praising the agency. The recalls still might not go far enough, he said.
Modern air bags, credited by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with saving more than 2,000 lives per year in the United States, rely on small chemical reactions to inflate in milliseconds when sensors detect a crash. Takata's trouble has been linked by safety advocates and victims' lawyers to the company's choice of chemical propellant, a type of ammonium nitrate that can be rendered unstable by high humidity and moisture.
One of the main disputes between Takata and regulators had been over whether to initiate a national recall for some driver's side air bags. The company had said the defect was tied to high humidity, and it supported recalls limited to southern US states with tropical weather.
Since then, all automakers with cars that have Takata air bag inflators have taken it on themselves to begin national recalls. There have also been recalls for defects in the passenger-side air bags, as well.
Takata's other affected customers in the US market are units of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Toyota, BMW, Mazda, Ford, General Motors, Subaru, and Mitsubishi.
Carmakers and parts suppliers face fines of $7,000 per day for not abiding by a US law that requires the companies to tell regulators about customer injuries, lawsuits, warranty claims, and complaints.
The maximum civil penalty is capped at $35 million. Because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued two special orders to Takata, it faces a combined fine of $14,000 a day, with a final maximum penalty of $70 million. The daily fines have been suspended as part of the consent order as long as Takata cooperates with the investigation.
"The penalties under the statute have been way too low," Blumenthal said. "Either legislatively or judicially the laws should be reformed."