BY CHRISTOPHER JENSEN and DANIELLE IVORY
New York Times News Service
Toyota, Chrysler and Honda are recalling about 2.1 million vehicles with airbags that might suddenly deploy even when the vehicle is not in a crash after earlier recalls did not sufficiently address the problem. Federal regulators said replacement parts might not be fully available until the end of the year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Saturday that it knew of three injuries but no deaths from unexpected airbag deployments. About 1 million of the models are also covered by recalls for defective inflaters made by the airbag manufacturer Takata that can deploy with too much force and send pieces of metal into the interior of the vehicle.
The problem in this recall is an electronic component made by the American supplier TRW Automotive. The fix under the previous recalls involved installing an electronic filter to try to protect the component. Mark Rosekind, the NHTSA administrator, said the automakers would now replace it entirely.
Toyota is recalling about 1 million vehicles, Chrysler about 753,000 and Honda about 374,000.
All of the vehicles were recalled for problems with inadvertent deployments in 2012, 2013 and 2014, but the safety agency has been facing the issue since 2011, when it opened an investigation after complaints from Jeep owners.
“The airbag deployed for no reason when driving on freeway at speed of 65 mph,” one 2003 Jeep Liberty owner wrote to the agency in 2011. “Very dangerous. Cannot see road in front of me because of inflated airbag and kind of dust.”
During the earlier recalls, many owners had to wait for parts before getting their cars fixed - some for more than a year - and now the agency says there are serious questions whether those replacement parts worked.
The failed repair issue was raised by Chrysler in January 2014, when the automaker told the safety agency of two unexpected deployments involving vehicles that had the recall repair, and then, in April, of four more, according to regulatory documents filed by Chrysler.
That May, safety regulators opened an investigation into the adequacy of the fix administered during the earlier recalls.
That investigation branched out to Honda and Toyota, which also used an airbag part made by TRW Automotive, according to regulators, though Honda said in its regulatory filings that it first learned of an episode involving an inadvertent deployment in a 2003 Odyssey on April 2, 2014. Toyota began receiving field reports of unexpected deployments, starting in June 2014, according to its government filings.
On Saturday, Rosekind said the three automakers were again recalling the vehicles, which include models of the 2003-04 Toyota Corolla and Corolla Matrix, the 2003-04 Avalon, the 2003-04 Pontiac Vibe, the 2003 Acura MDX, the 2003-04 Honda Odyssey, the 2002-03 Jeep Liberty, the 2002-04 Grand Cherokee and the 2003-04 Dodge Viper.
Regulators received about 40 reports that the original remedy did not work, prompting the agency to investigate, Rosekind said. The full remedy for the vehicles may not be available immediately and repairs might not be completed on all of the cars until the end of 2015, he said.
Still, he urged drivers who had not yet fixed their cars under the previous recall to at least get that original remedy. While it would be a temporary fix, it would still reduce the risk of an inadvertent deployment, he said.
“This is unfortunately a complicated issue for consumers, who may have to return to their dealer more than once,” Rosekind said. “But this is an urgent safety issue, and all consumers with vehicles covered by the previous recalls should have that remedy installed.”
The safety agency has asked TRW and the automakers why it could take so long to fully repair all of the recalled cars and whether anything could be done to speed the process.
“We want these companies to get it right,” Rosekind said.
The pace of the Chrysler airbag repair under the earlier recall has been a source of frustration for some owners and consumer advocates. While Chrysler announced the recall of 745,000 vehicles in November 2012, The New York Times reported that the automaker had repaired only about 6 percent of the vehicles 14 months later.
At the time, Chrysler said it had taken time to develop the needed part - the same part the safety agency now suspects does not work.
The agency has been under heavy scrutiny since last February, when General Motors recalled millions of Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars with an ignition defect that went undisclosed for more than a decade and has been linked to at least 50 deaths. By the end of 2014, the automobile industry had recalled a record of more than 60 million vehicles in the United States. The Takata airbag flaw alone has forced Honda and nine other manufacturers to recall millions of vehicles across the nation and at least five deaths have been linked to the airbag flaw. Honda is investigating whether another death, which occurred on Jan. 18, is linked to the airbags.
Congressional lawmakers called Rosekind’s predecessor, David Friedman, to Capitol Hill five times last year to testify about safety issues. In September, a Times investigation found that the agency had repeatedly been slow to identify and act on safety problems and hesitant to employ its full legal powers against automakers.
More recently, however, the agency has shown signs of taking more aggressive action against automakers, including a record $70 million penalty against Honda and an investigation into a 2013 Ford recall of its biggest pickup trucks.