WASHINGTON — U.S. safety regulators ordered Japanese supplier Takata to expand the recall of potentially defective airbags to cover nearly 34 million vehicles on Tuesday, making it the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history.
"We will not stop our work until every airbag is replaced," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement.
The inflators in Takata airbags could rupture, sending metal shards into the passenger compartment and causing serious injury or death, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. At least six deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to Takata airbag ruptures.
Among the manufacturers, Honda has issued the largest single recall of cars equipped with the defective inflators -- a 2014 recall of nearly 5.4 million vehicles, including the 2001-'07 Honda Accord, 2001-'05 Honda Civic, 2002-'06 Honda CR-V, 2003-'11 Honda Element, 2002-'04 Honda Odyssey, 2003-'07 Honda Pilot, 2006 Honda Ridgeline, 2003 Acura CL, 2003-'06 Acura MDX and 2002-'03 Acura TL.
Consumers may find themselves scrambling to determine whether their vehicle is affected by the expanded recall. Automakers are expected to provide more information on the makes and models of affected vehicles in the coming days, according to U.S. safety officials.
In addition, it may take years for all the repairs to be completed because there is an inadequate supply of replacement parts.
Owners of cars equipped with Takata airbags can check the status of the recalls at a new government Web site called Recalls Spotlight. Consumers also can check the Vehicle Identification Number or VIN Lookup tool on the NHTSA Web site.
NHTSA on Wednesday said it is waiting for automakers to supply a complete list of affected vehicles. It will update its site when information becomes available.
"Unlike the Toyota and GM recalls of the past few years, the Takata airbag recalls affect a number of car companies, so there isn't one automaker bearing exclusive responsibility," said Jessica Caldwell, an Edmunds senior analyst. "Additionally, the fact that it is a third party shields auto companies from consumer backlash."
NHTSA, which had pressed Takata to acknowledge the defects, said a key factor in the ruptures is the possibility of moisture infiltrating the defective inflators over time and causing a volatile reaction in the chemical that ignites and inflates airbags in a crash.
But federal safety regulators said a "definitive root cause of the inflator malfunctions" has not yet been established.
NHTSA said Takata had agreed to expand a series of regional recalls of passenger-side inflators to cover more than 16 million vehicles nationwide. Takata also agreed to expand a current nationwide recall of driver-side inflators to cover more than 17 million vehicles.
"We are pleased to have reached this agreement with NHTSA, which presents a clear path forward to advancing safety and restoring the trust of automakers and the driving public," said Shigehisa Takata, Takata chairman and CEO, in a statement provided to Edmunds.
The company also said it has agreed to continue to cooperate "with all future regulatory actions and proceedings that are part of NHTSA's ongoing investigation and oversight of the Takata airbag inflators and accompanying remedial actions; continue to respond to all NHTSA information requests in a complete and timely fashion; and continue to provide NHTSA with all test results and data related to Takata inflators."
Reaction to the dramatic announcement included a warning from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Michigan), who said: "It has been a year since the alarm was sounded about dangerous Takata airbag defects, yet drivers are still at risk.
"The recalls are mounting and the causes are still murky. Bottom line, we know there's still a problem. We need answers and we need action. Everyone involved, from Takata to NHTSA to the manufacturers, needs to buckle down and figure out what triggers the airbag explosions."
The largest previous auto recall in U.S. history, according to NHTSA, was the 1981 recall of 21 million Ford vehicles with defective parking gears.
Edmunds says: Concerned consumers need to monitor the NHTSA Web site as more information becomes available and stay in touch with their dealers on next steps.