WASHINGTON — The federal government has taken the unusual step of ordering Japanese supplier Takata to preserve all airbag inflators removed through a recall process as evidence for a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation and private litigation cases.
NHTSA is also demanding access to all data from the testing of those removed inflators.
"This department is focused on protecting the American public from these defective airbags and at getting to the bottom of how they came to be included in millions of vehicles on U.S. roads," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement on Wednesday.
The defective airbag inflators have been linked to at least six deaths. The airbag inflators can explode with too much force, shooting shrapnel at vehicle occupants.
Approximately 17 million vehicles with defective Takata airbags have been recalled since 2008 and just under 2 million of those have been fixed as of December 31, according to NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge.
On February 20, NHTSA began levying $14,000 a day in civil penalties against Takata for failure to respond to requests for information about more than 2.5 million pages of documents it produced under NHTSA orders.
"What we have asked Takata for is their help in understanding what's in those documents," Trowbridge said in a media conference call last Friday.
Wednesday's order said that Takata is "prohibited from destroying or damaging any inflators except as is necessary to conduct testing."
Takata is also required to set aside 10 percent of recalled inflators and make them available to private plaintiffs for testing. NHTSA said testing of thousands of airbags to date has not produced any evidence that the passenger-side defect extends outside a high-humidity zone.
Under NHTSA oversight, Takata is testing airbag inflators to determine the scope of the defect and to search for a root cause.
Trowbridge said federal investigators have visited Takata's Michigan testing facility as part of the probe.
The visits are to "get a firsthand look at how they are doing and what they're doing," Trowbridge said. "Also, to have face-to-face discussions with their technical team about the root cause."
He indicated that these "short notice or no-notice visits" will continue in the future "as a check."
NHTSA is also upgrading its Takata investigation to an "engineering analysis," a formal step in the defect investigation process.
Edmunds says: In the meantime, consumers with affected vehicles should make an immediate service appointment with their dealer once they receive an official recall notice.