The ongoing controversy surrounding defective and potentially lethal airbags is much more than a dangerous inconvenience for millions of U.S. car owners. Analysts say the problem, which some expect to become the largest automotive recall in history, could take years to fix and have far-reaching impacts on both consumers and the automotive sector.
David Friedman, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's deputy administration, said NHTSA is "leaving no stone unturned in our aggressive pursuit to track down the full geographic scope of this issue." Already, nearly 8 million vehicles in the U.S. are thought to be affected by the defective airbags produced by Tokyo-based Takata.
In a statement, Takata said on Wednesday it's taking the issue "extremely seriously, and will cooperate fully with the NHTSA and the vehicle manufacturers conducting repairs."
But long-time observers of the auto industry warn this recall is different from others before it. Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book's KBB.com, noted Takata is one of three global airbag manufacturers and controls over 30 percent of the international market.
"This means not only is a potential defect within their assembly process far-reaching," he told CBS MoneyWatch, "but the production logistics of replacing all those defective airbags, while also keeping up with ongoing production demand for new-car airbags, will be challenging to say the least -- 'impossible' would probably be a more accurate word."
Brauer predicted the airbag recall will not only take years to complete but likely require Takata to seek help from its rivals. As to the overall costs, he said it's too early to estimate, "because the total number of vehicles keeps being revised, upward."
KBB.com executive director Jack Nerad is also concerned that the recall's immense costs and logistical issues could create a disconnect between consumers and car dealerships, and even chill innovation in the auto sector.
The affected consumers, said Nerad, will have to wait for auto dealerships to receive replacement parts and then get training for those replacements.
"This leads to all kinds of negative consequences," he said in an email. "Consumers are disappointed when they first visit the dealership. Consumers then forget or decide to forget about getting the fix done later -- dealers who once had no parts now have too many. It often results in a far less-than-perfect solution and ends with lots of unfixed vehicles still on the road."
Nerad added that many auto companies will now rethink the research and development needed to create new safety systems if, as with the airbags, the possible end result could be multimillion-dollar product liability lawsuits.
Said Nerad: "At the very least, it will slow technology and raise costs. ... it could stifle progress altogether."
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