The largest consumer recall on record is proving to be a complicated one, with automakers still scouring their records to figure out exactly which vehicles are affected by airbag deflators made by Japanese auto supplier Takata.
In testimony Tuesday afternoon before Congress, transportation officials contending with an estimated 33.8 million defective deflators detailed their efforts to find and fix the problem linked to at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries.
"Takata doesn't know which vehicles those deflators were installed in. There are 10 different configurations of the deflators over all the different models," said Mark Rosekind, administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Safety officials and the auto industry are still unclear exactly what causes Takata's inflators to explode, spewing metal fragments, although moisture and heat have been raised as possible factors.
"The messaging around these airbags has been tortured at best," said Michigan Republican Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose subcommittee held the hearing. "I am concerned that NHTSA and Takata decided to release head-turning, headline-grabbing recall numbers at a time when the information is not yet actionable."
The NHTSA is advising consumers to check their vehicle identification number, or VIN, weekly on the agency's lookup tool at Safercar.gov, which is being continually updated as the information becomes available, testified NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind.
Seven out of 11 car manufacturers have supplied information, and "within the next couple of weeks we should have that whole data set," he said.
Takata, which two weeks ago acknowledged for the first time that its airbags were defective and agreed to double to nearly 34 million the count of cars to be recalled in the U.S., is advising automakers to replace the defective inflators with newly designed ones from the company, or with those made by rivals.
The Takata air bag problems began surfacing more than a decade ago, when a Takata airbag inflator ruptured in Switzerland.
"The public needs to understand that experts have been studying this problem for years," David Kelly, project director of the Independent Testing Coalition, a group of vehicle manufacturers, told lawmakers during the hearing. "If this was anything but the complex project that it is, a root cause would have been identified by now. Unfortunately, that is not the case and a final determination is not imminent."