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Blog: no easy answers: what’s behind the largest recall in American automotive history

The Takata air bag recall is the largest in U.S. automotive history, spanning tens of millions of cars and more than a dozen companies.
The Takata air bag recall is the largest in U.S. automotive history, spanning tens of millions of cars and more than a dozen companies.
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Recall alert

Every Sunday on KFOX14 news at nine, I host a segment called Recall Alert, in which I go over some of the recalls that have had the biggest impact or involved the largest number of products recalled in the previous week.

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not the most interesting segment in the world. I imagine that many people treat that minute and a half of news as a time to go to the bathroom or put the dishes in the sink.

Most of the recalls are for food and are made over issues involved the largest number of products recalled in the previous week. And most of the time, the recall is for a few million products or less.

Given the fact that there are more than 323 million people living in the U.S., the probability of someone in El Paso having a recalled product in their home is very slim.

And yet, every once in a while, a massive recall catches our attention.

Blue Bell blues

Last April, that recall was for products from Blue Bell Creameries. A listeria contamination was detected at three of the company’s main production plants.

Part of the reason people paid attention to this recall was because three people in Kansas died and at least seven others were hospitalized, reportedly after getting sick from this contamination.

Listeria is a nasty little bacterium that can make even the healthiest of people violently ill. The best-case scenario is mild flu symptoms and an uncomfortable couple of days. But it can be deadly for people with poor immune systems as well as for children and the elderly.

People in Texas had another reason to care about this recall. Blue Bell’s birthplace is Brenham, a town about halfway between Austin and Houston.

Mostly though, my guess is that people cared because this is such a popular company. I mean, who hasn’t had a Blue Bell ice cream product in their freezer at one point or another? This ice cream is even given out in school cafeterias.

At first, the recall affected only a few products, then millions more. Eventually, grocery stores began pulling all Blue Bell products off of their shelves. For months, the company cleaned its facilities, tested and retested its products for listeria and retrained its staff members.

The bitter truth about a sweet recall

Last August, Blue Bell finally resumed production, determined to bounce back from this food fiasco.

But the damage was already done. The recall ended up costing the company more than $200 million. That’s not to mention the loss of consumer confidence.

And Blue Bell isn’t out of the woods yet. In January, the company released a statement essentially saying that it will never be able to completely alleviate the threat of another listeria contamination.

“Because Listeria is commonly found in the natural environment, no manufacturer can ever assume it can be entirely eradicated,” a January 7 press release read.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation into Blue Bell to find out whether company executives knew about the listeria outbreak long before they announced it and whether the steps they took to mitigate the issue were enough.

In the four months that Blue Bell products were off store shelves and in the news, ice cream lovers were forced to find other options, brands like Breyers, Dreyers, Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs. It wasn’t that difficult to do, because there are so many other options out there.

But what if there weren’t any other options? What if almost every option out there posed the same health risks or even worse? Would you stop eating ice cream?

The reason I’m asking you this isn’t to criticize one ice cream company or another. In fact, it has nothing to do with ice cream at all.

I’m talking about cars.

The actor who drew national attention to car recalls

Last month, another major recall made national news after "Star Trek" actor Anton Yelchin was killed in what many are describing as a freak accident. The 27-year-old rising star died on June 19 when his car pinned him against the brick mailbox pillar and security fence outside his home.

He died of blunt traumatic asphyxia, probably within a minute of being run over, according to the coroner who performed his autopsy.

Yelchin’s death has spurred a $5 million class-action lawsuit by Jeep owners against Fiat Chrysler. They claim that a defect to the gear shifter caused more than 300 deaths, including Yelchin’s.

Fiat Chrysler had issued a recall for 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees in April but only recently released instructions for how to fix the issue.

Before delving into the recall, it’s important to explain how the gear shifter works. Unlike a traditional automatic gear shifter that moves forward and backward and locks in that position depending on the gear, the shifter in these models always returns back to the center. Here is a link to part of the driver’s manual explaining the shifter:

It is spring-loaded and returns to a central, fixed position after a gear is selected. At the time it was made, the technology was considered to be innovative.

But eventually, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began receiving complaints about drivers being confused about which gear the car was in. The administration officially opened an investigation into the shifter in August 2015.

In February, the administration wrapped up its investigation, concluding that the car “provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”

A spring-loaded controversy

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor Fiat Chrysler called the issue a defect, but they did say the technology was confusing for drivers.

As of April 12, Fiat Chrysler had identified about 700 field reports of issues related to the gear shifter, including 212 crashes, 308 claims of property damage and 41 injuries, according to NHTSA documents. So, the automaker decided to issue a voluntary recall, saying the vehicles “may not adequately warn the driver when driver's door is opened and the vehicle is not in PARK, allowing them to exit the vehicle while the vehicle is still in gear.”

In May, the automaker began sending out these letters to owners detailing the defect and asking them to take the cars into an authorized dealer for a free repair:

It didn’t specify, however, when the recall would begin, saying, “FCA intends to repair your vehicle free of charge (parts and labor). However, a permanent remedy for this condition is currently under development. FCA is working to finalize a remedy by the 4th quarter of 2016. FCA will contact you again by mail, with a follow-up recall notice, when the remedy is available.”

Then in June, Fiat Chrysler finally sent out repair instructions to dealers to guide them through how to install new software that will include an auto park feature, which would eliminate the possibility of the driver inadvertently getting out of the car without first putting it in park.

But the drivers who filed the lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler say the company took too long to fix the defect, creating a "rollaway" risk, like the incident that caused Yelchin's death.

The law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLC filed that lawsuit claiming Fiat Chrysler “fraudulently concealed and failed to remedy a gear shifter design defect affecting 811,000 vehicles and linked to driverless rollaway incidents."

So now, the case will wind its way through the legal system for years and likely end in some sort of settlement.

But even this isn’t the most pressing recall people should be concerned about. It came at a time when scores of automakers are taking part in the largest car recall in American history.

The largest recall in American automotive history

The recall began back in 2013 and has now spread to at least 14 automakers and more than 100 million cars worldwide.

The issue is over the airbags created by the Japanese manufacturer Takata. The company reports that the airbags can deploy with so much pressure that the inflator could rupture, sending metal fragments flying toward the cars’ occupants.

The inflators use ammonium nitrate, a compound that experts say is highly sensitive to temperature changes and moisture. The compound can break down when exposed to those two conditions over time, especially in areas with high humidity.

When that happens, the airbags malfunction in an accident. The ammonium nitrate deploys more quickly than it should, causing an explosion and causing the canister that holds the compound to burst. Shards of that metal canister then fly toward the car’s occupant, who becomes impaled.

This is exactly what happened to 17-year-old Huma Hanif. She was driving justing 15 mph in her 2002 Honda Civic back on March 31 when she rear-ended another car. It should have been a minor accident.

But a metal shard from the inflator impaled Huma. She was able to unbuckle her seatbelt and get out of her car before falling to the ground, where she bled to death. The high school senior, who had dreams of becoming a nurse, became the 11th person to die from this defect.

Honda said that it sent out multiple notifications to owners, including Huma’s family, warning of the defect. But her family said they had no idea there was a defect with the car. Now, they have filed a lawsuit against Takata and the automaker, saying that Huma's death had been preventable.

Furthering the family’s argument, on June 30, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent out a notice saying 2001-2003 Honda and Acura models pose a much higher risk of the airbags malfunctioning.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx even went on record, saying, “Folks should not drive these vehicles unless they are going straight to a dealer to have them repaired immediately, free of charge.”

But, I’m not badmouthing Honda. In fact, I myself own a Honda Civic and absolutely love my car.

The defect that could derail American trust in automakers

The reality is that, as a result of this massive airbag recall and others, about one in five cars on the road in the U.S. need some sort of fix, according to Carfax. And the NHTSA reports that in 2015, there were close to 900 recalls affecting 51 million vehicles.

The Takata airbag recall is so widespread that many of these automakers simply don’t have the parts right now to fix the cars they’ve recalled. And some automakers are replacing millions of old airbags with new ones that will have the same issue down the line, meaning the cars will have to be recalled a second time and repaired.

Before we continue, it’s important to take a look at when and why Takata switched to ammonium nitrate for its airbags. The Japanese company made the switch in 1998. It claims that the technology was innovative but critics contend that this was a cost-cutting measure.

Paul Worsey, an explosives engineer from Missouri University, told The New York Times that this compound is more suitable for large demolitions in mining and construction than for air bags. “But it’s cheap, incredibly cheap,” Worsey said.

A report released by the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation looked into whether Takata knowingly produced faulty airbags.

“Numerous internal documents and emails reference the widespread manipulation of inflator testing results by Takata employees,” the report reads. “Documents and emails provided to Committee minority staff show that Takata continued to manipulate and alter testing data in 2010, even after recalls in 2008 and 2009 and two fatalities in 2009 linked to rupturing inflators.”

Takata allegedly ignored the data, manipulated it and then reported positive results back to Honda.

No simple solutions

So now, we find ourselves with a massive recall on our hands and not enough parts to fix it. This issue highlights the fact that we need diversity in our automakers and the parts they use. When dozens of companies buy parts from the same company and that part has a problem, millions are left without a safe alternative.

Because of the lack of replacement parts, several companies are still selling brand-new cars that have the same defect with the air bags.

Those sales are legal, but the cars will need to be recalled by 2018.

"This may be the first time in history where multiple automakers are selling brand-new cars with a known, and potentially deadly, defect," Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, told CNBC.

This fact could open the door for potential product liability lawsuits, since companies are knowingly selling defective cars. The NHTSA says however, says that there haven’t been any inflator ruptures in cars made from 2008 and beyond, likely because they haven’t been exposed to heat and moisture for as long as the cars that did rupture.

Regardless, the airbags will still need to be replaced eventually.

"There just aren't enough non-defective replacement airbags to go around," Rich Newsome, an Orlando lawyer representing people who have sued Takata, told CNBC. "It's kind of like the ticking time bomb, and everyone's betting the bomb won't go off for six years.”

Renting out recalled cars

Until last month, rental car companies were allowed to continue renting out cars with open recalls.

But beginning June 1, a new federal law mandated that these agencies must fix any and all open safety defects before renting the vehicles out to customers. This law came after two sisters died in an accident that was caused by a rental car defect.

But because the Takata recall is so expansive, we don’t know yet how this new law will affect these rental car companies. And the law only affects the bigger rental car companies. Under this new law, agencies with 35 cars or less can continue to rent out cars that are known to have issues.

No easy answers

There really is no easy answer when it comes to how we should address this massive recall. More models are added to the list of recalls every day for their defective airbags. So, there’s a chance the car that you thought was safe before will not be safe in the future.

Dozens of companies are affected, so it’s not an isolated problem. The majority of these companies still don’t have the parts to fix the defect because there are so many cars that were recalled.

Even if they did have all the parts, many of these car companies simply don’t have the manpower to get all of the fixes done quickly. We are talking about tens of millions of cars, after all. General Motors sent out a recall letter to owners saying the parts are so backed up that it could take until the end of 2019 to repair the cars.

And it depends on where you live. Many automakers have a system to prioritize whose cars will be repaired first. Older cars in areas with high humidity top the list.

Why the recall?

So what’s the point of issuing a recall at all if automakers can’t fix the cars?

Perhaps it’s to take the liability out of the automakers’ hands so they can say they warned drivers and their hands were tied.

As millions of people wait for their recalls to be completed, the companies have offered a few options. One options is getting a loaner car until the defective airbags can be fixed.

But there are some snags with that. One of the big snags is that it usually means a rental car, and the rule of "25 and older" still applies. So younger drivers will not be allowed to get a rental car. You may also be required to put down a deposit on the rental car and buy additional renters insurance if yours doesn’t cover a rental car.

Several automakers offer their own loaner cars as well, but as one California family found out, the rental car will only be loaned out to the registered owner of the car. Steve Elster told the Los Angeles Times that, once again, his son was left without a safe alternative since he was the registered owner of the car.

But, if you are either the registered owner of the car or older than 25, a loaner car might be a good option. You will need to contact the automaker and it could be a pain, but it could save your life. Some people have reported that they were told to just keep driving the car they have until the automaker has the parts it needs to fix it, but said that they kept pushing until the company finally agreed to give them a loaner car.

The driving force of change

As for the rest of us, we’re going to have to keep pushing the automakers to replace the car parts quickly. That means calling and emailing and sending letters by the millions to demand a fix sooner rather than later.

It also means sending those letters and emails to our lawmakers to demand accountability for this defect. Federal prosecutors are already looking into Takata’s practices. But if we truly never want this to happen again, we need to tell our lawmakers that a hefty fine isn’t enough.

We need to tell them that it’s not just about holding one person accountable but the entire company, for putting lives at risk. We need to send a message that automakers should be doing a better job of researching these companies before trusting their products.

And we need to send a message that these automakers need to be more proactive about sending out recall notices and getting in touch with drivers because it shouldn’t be about protecting the automaker from liability lawsuits but protecting drivers from danger.

It shouldn’t take an actor’s death to get attention on a certain recall. It shouldn’t take a 17-year-old girl’s death either. It’s about stepping up to the plate and realizing that, yes, these repairs are going to be expensive for the automaker but they’re the right thing to do.

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Because, if we as taxpayers were willing to spend nearly $80 billion bailing out the automakers when they were going through a hardship during the Great Recession, the least they can do is have our backs when they discover a defect that could kill us.

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