​Report: 4 automakers still using faulty Takata air bag inflators

Last Updated Jun 1, 2016 5:04 PM EDT

The Takata air bag recall was named the "largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history" by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Unfortunately, it's about to become even more complicated.

Four automakers confirmed in an investigation from the Senate Commerce Committee Democrats that they are continuing to sell new vehicles with Takata ammonium-nitrate inflators that lack a chemical drying agent. These inflators are the type that have been recalled by the NHTSA and are linked to almost all the deaths and injuries from Takata air bag ruptures.

The automakers that continue to sell new vehicles with the defective airbags are Fiat Chrysler (FCAU), Mitsubishi, Toyota (TM), and Volkswagen, according to the Senate report.

While three of the four automakers told the committee that they plan to phase out the recalled inflator, the revelation is likely to heighten consumers' concern over vehicle safety. Under the recall order, automakers are allowed to continue selling new cars with the defective inflators because the ruptures are linked with age. Nevertheless, the Senate report called for automakers to halt the practice.

"What's troubling here is that consumers are buying new cars not realizing they're going to be recalled," said Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top ranking Democrat on the committee, in a statement. "These cars shouldn't be sold until they're fixed."

Customers who are buying new cars with the defective inflators will need to replace the component before 2018, given that all of the inflators will be recalled by that date, the report noted.

The revelation that automakers are still selling new cars with the defective inflators "is astonishing," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Michael Harley in an emailed statement. "These vehicles will need to be recalled in just 18 months," he said.

Referring to the Volkswagen emissions-scandal, Harley added, "On one hand we have an automaker-ordered stop-sale for an ongoing emissions violation, which isn't linked to a single death. On the other hand, we have a government agency comfortable putting additional consumers behind airbags that have already killed nearly a dozen people in the U.S."

The report found that at least 2.1 million of the inflators that have been replaced in the recall are the same type that are linked to the defect. "They will have to be replaced again in the future," it noted.

The recall completion rate is "unacceptably low," the report said. "As of March 2016, the nationwide recall completion rates ranged from .04 percent to 39.5 percent," it said. The NHTSA is aiming for a 100 percent completion rate.

An estimated 60 million inflators in U.S. vehicles may eventually be recalled, or about one out of every four cars, the report noted. The NHTSA expanded its recall last month after confirming that the ruptures are tied to the age of the inflators as well as exposure to high humidity and fluctuating temperatures. The ruptures, which can send metal shards toward drivers and passengers, have been tied to as many as 13 deaths and 100 injuries.

Two of the four automakers provided the committee with the specific models that may contain the defective inflators. They are the 2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV; the 2017 Mitsubishi i-MiEV; the 2016 Volkswagen CC; the 2016 Audi TT; and the 2017 Audi R8.

In a statement, Toyota said the company "is phasing out the use of Takata air bag inflators without desiccant in vehicles currently under production. Importantly, these non-desiccated inflators are not subject to a current recall."

Mitsubishi said it's working with a supplier to develop another inflator to replace the Takata devices, which it expects will be ready early next year. The Takata inflators that it's currently using "have not been declared defective, but current understanding is that Takata will file with NHTSA a Defect Information Report applicable to these inflators in December 2018," the company said in a statement.