WASHINGTON — In a significant shift designed to reassure anxious consumers, a Fiat-Chrysler executive told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the automaker is replacing all driver-side inflators involved in the Takata airbag recall with an alternate and permanent design provided by supplier TRW Automotive.
"Despite the lack of a root cause determination to date, FCA's mission to identify and implement solutions that will improve the safety of our customers has not been delayed," said Scott G. Kunselman, Fiat-Chrysler US senior vice president and head of vehicle safety and regulatory compliance, in written testimony.
Kunselman said the shift began on June 8. Customers who receive the TRW inflator replacement will require no further action on their vehicles.
"Takata inflators that are no longer needed due to the supply from TRW are being quarantined and returned from our dealers to Takata," he said. "All of the approximately 50,000 customers who previously received a Takata inflator will be notified to return for the TRW update as well."
Through multiple recall campaign expansions, Fiat-Chrysler is in the process of recalling 4.8 million inflators in 4.5 million vehicles in the U.S.
The automaker also announced that it has been working with Takata to develop improved versions of the passenger inflator designs.
"These new versions will contain an improved igniter material, as well as a desiccant that will protect the propellant from moisture exposure," Kunselman said. "These designs will complete validation testing in August and FCA expects to begin installation in November of this year."
Fiat-Chrysler said it is aware of a single incident of a high-pressure deployment involving a driver's-side airbag that caused a personal injury in one of its vehicles.
The defective Takata airbags can deploy with too much force, shooting deadly shrapnel at vehicle occupants.
The defective airbags have been linked to eight deaths worldwide and more than 100 injuries.
NHTSA revised the number of vehicles affected by the Takata airbag recall on Tuesday.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told senators that the agency now believes there are 34 million defective inflators in 32 million vehicles covered by the Takata recalls. On May 19, NHTSA said there were nearly 34 million vehicles included in the recall.
"This effort led to agreements with Daicel, Autoliv and TRW Automotive to provide us with replacement parts in addition to Takata," said Rick Schostek, Honda North America executive vice president.
Schostek said Honda dealers are averaging more than 50,000 repairs per week.
"We have asked our dealers to expand service hours and to never turn away a customer with an affected vehicle," he said.
A Takata executive said in written testimony that the Japanese supplier has "confidence in the inflators we are producing today."
Kevin M. Kennedy, Takata North America executive vice president, said by September it expects to be producing 1 million replacement kits per month, primarily for the U.S. market.
"We continue to work with other inflator suppliers to increase further the production of replacement inflators to meet anticipated demand," he said.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing began with remarks by Sen. John Thune, who said: "recall fatigue and confusion are growing."
He added: "It's important for consumers to check to see if their vehicle is subject to this or any other recall. Please schedule an appointment to get it fixed with your closest dealership as soon as possible."
Sen. Bill Nelson expressed frustration with the pace of recalls.
"The recalls have ramped up but, unfortunately, the tragedies have continued," he said.
Edmunds says: Consumers who think they may be affected by the Takata recall need to check NHTSA's Vin Lookup Tool and then get in touch with their dealers for next steps.