Takata has agreed to recall another 35 million to 40 million air bag inflators, a stunning increase that will more than double what already is the largest automotive recall in American history.
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The recall expansion would bring to as many as 69 million the total number of inflators to be replaced, a task that will take until the end of 2019 to complete, according to a statement Wednesday from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Takata air bag inflators can explode with too much force and injure people. So far, at least 11 deaths and more than 100 injuries have been reported worldwide.
Replacing that many inflators will be a daunting task because automakers involved in the current recall of 28.8 million inflators have only been able to fix 28 percent of the cars involved after more than two years. Air bag manufacturers have had trouble ramping up to make enough replacement inflators, and automakers have had trouble finding owners and persuading them to get their cars repaired.
"The acceleration of this recall is based on scientific evidence and will protect all Americans from air bag inflators that may become unsafe," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose department oversees NHTSA, said in the statement.
Under an order issued last year, the government has wide authority over Takata to prompt additional recalls. The NHTSA news release says the order has been amended to include the additional inflators.
The expansion will be phased in between this month and December 2019, with older cars and those in areas of high heat and humidity getting priority, the agency says.
Takata uses the chemical ammonium nitrate to create an explosion that inflates air bags in a crash. But the chemical can degrade over time when exposed to heat and humidity and burn too fast, blowing apart a metal canister and spewing shrapnel into drivers and passengers.
The expanded recall covers all front air bags that do not have a chemical drying agent known as a dessicant. But it does not cover side air bags without the drying agent, nor does it cover another 32 million air bags that have the dessicant.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, whose state includes several of the injuries and deaths from Takata inflators, said the pace of the recalls still isn't fast enough.
"The top priority must be doing whatever is necessary to get these potentially deadly air bags out of people's cars as quickly as possible. If we wait another three or four years for these to get replaced, more people are likely to die," he said in a statement.
Even without the expansion, it would have taken until the end of 2017 for enough replacement parts to be manufactured, said Scott Upham, CEO of Valient Market Research in Rochester, New York, which tracks air bag sales.
Upham said other makers of air bag inflators such as TRW Automotive, Daicel and Autoliv have agreed to ramp up production even more.
"They're pitching in to the best of their ability, but even with their help, it's going to be very difficult to really ramp up production to cover this," Upham said.
Upham says it will be difficult for Takata to survive financially with the expanded recall. He expects the company to file for bankruptcy and emerge as a smaller corporation specializing in seat belts, electronics and air bag assemblies without inflators.
The additional recalls come as authorities in Malaysia investigate two more recent deaths in cars with Takata air bags that ruptured. Honda says the inflators spewed metal fragments in the crashes, but the cause of the deaths has not been determined.
The crashes occurred in April and May. If they were caused by Takata inflators, they would be the 12th and 13th deaths worldwide.