In recent weeks the largest and most complex automotive recall in U.S. history got even more complicated and weird.

About 3 million vehicles were added to the campaign to replace Takata airbags in about 37 million vehicles that can malfunction and kill drivers and passengers. Ford expanded a do-not-drive order for its 2006 Ranger small pickup, a particularly problematic model year for the airbags. GM petitioned the government to get out of recalling some of its most widely sold SUVs and trucks. And a deal in bankruptcy court could make it difficult for consumers to sue.

So why has this recall gone on so long, and when will it end? Why are these airbag inflators so dangerous? And if your vehicle was just added to the list, how long will it take to get it fixed?

CR has some of the answers and also advice. We also asked each of the automakers involved when and how owners of their vehicles can get  safe replacement airbags. (See responses at the end of this report).

MORE ON THE TAKATA AIRBAG RECALL

Consumer advocates say that the recall has stretched on far too long and that automakers need to be more aggressive about replacing the airbags, including better outreach to inform owners. 

“In 2018 the size and complexity of the Takata airbag recalls are no excuse for leaving so many consumers at risk or failing to pull out all the stops to get these deadly airbags off the road,” says William Wallace, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “Automakers should more aggressively market recalls and make getting repairs easy, and consumers should take urgent action as soon as they hear a fix is available.”

Here’s a rundown on the latest developments and how we got here.

The Latest

  • Ford issued a do-not-drive order for about 3,000 2006 Ford Ranger pickups in January, then expanded the order to include an additional 33,000 vehicles Feb. 12. Mazda issued an identical order for its B-Series pickups, which were made at the same plant as the Rangers.
  • A group of creditors fighting out Takata’s corporate dissolution in bankruptcy court struck a preliminary deal that could become final as soon as Feb. 15. According to news reports, a group of automakers and Key Safety Systems, the company that has bought most of Takata’s assets, agreed to create a trust to compensate consumers or their families for injuries and fatalities.
  • GM is asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to be able to avoid recalling some of its vehicles.
  • More than 3 million additional vehicles were added to the recalls as part of NHTSA’s effort to space out the repairs in different regions of the country, according to the risk for drivers and passengers.  

A Long, Long Recall

It has been nearly 10 years since automakers began recalling vehicles for exploding Takata airbags and four years since regulators began to investigate the defect. And it has been more than two years since NHTSA took over its management.

Even so, this recall is not close to being over.

By design, there will be more phases still to come. Waves of vehicles are scheduled to be added in each of the next two years, and officials expect it to take a couple more years for all the airbag repairs to be completed.  

This recall is unusual in its scope. It covers cars and trucks from 19 manufacturers, and there are 49 million airbag inflators under recall, so far, affecting an estimated 37 million vehicles, according to NHTSA.

And it's also is unprecedented because of the grisly nature of the defect and the damage it can cause. Ammonium nitrate used in Takata airbags can become unstable over time, especially after exposure to temperature fluctuations and periods of constant high humidity. That can lead to inflators exploding with an unexpectedly violent force and spraying metal shrapnel. At least 15 drivers and passengers in the U.S., including three this past summer., have died from blunt force trauma, from injuries to the head and neck, and from massive bleeding from lacerations caused by the flying metal.

That’s why it’s important for owners to stay vigilant if they have a vehicle that’s part of this recall. If you’re not sure whether your vehicle is covered, now is the time to find out. 

What Consumers Should Do

Find out whether you own one of the sets of vehicles that have been deemed the highest risk. That includes certain 2001-03 Honda and Acura models as well as the 2006 Ford Ranger and Mazda B-Series pickups. Tests on the Honda vehicles showed the chance of an airbag explosion to be as high as 1 in 2. Ford and Mazda have issued rare do-not-drive orders on the pickups after a second Ranger fatality was reported in 2017.

For millions of vehicles in the recall but not under a stop-driving order, NHTSA has prioritized delivery of parts to models and areas with the highest concentration of Takata incidents, NHTSA told CR.

“It was not possible for all replacement parts to be available right away, and some vehicles were at much higher risk of a dangerous airbag explosion than others,” agency spokeswoman Karen Aldana said in an emailed statement.

In the early days of this recall, consumers sometimes faced delays up to multiple months to get replacement inflators installed. NHTSA says now that the supply of replacement airbag inflators has improved and that consumers should no longer have to wait weeks or months to get their car fixed. That’s only relevant, however, if automakers are letting owners know that parts are now available. Automakers and Takata have lined up suppliers to produce replacement inflators, including Autoliv, TRW, and Daicel.

Most of the automakers that CR contacted said their dealers have enough replacement parts available to handle the vehicles that have been recalled so far.

“The real problem now is getting consumers to bring their cars in for repairs,” says General Motors spokesman Tom Wilkinson.

The most important thing consumers can do is to check their VINs on their manufacturers’ websites or the NHTSA website or mobile app. Consumers can also call their dealers. An overview of the Takata recall, including an easy-to-understand chart (PDF), can be found at nhtsa.gov. You can also see information in this video

The Replacement Plan

Because so many million inflators are involved in the Takata recall campaign, NHTSA created a plan with automakers to prioritize the inflator replacement process in order to accelerate the installation of high-priority airbags. (Because a vehicle can have more than one recalled airbag, NHTSA has generally talked about inflators rather than vehicles.)

That plan broke the replacement process into 10 groups, based on the age of vehicles involved, and focused first on locations that had dramatic temperature changes and high humidity. Two more groups will be announced in 2020 after the original 10 to replace airbags that had been installed in previous recalls.

How It Works

Here’s how that plan works, according to NHTSA:

Groups 1 through 8 have already been recalled, prioritized by risk and parts supply. Making steady progress, the agency released the details for the ninth group in January.

As each level was rolled out:

  • Automakers informed a new group of owners that their vehicle is part of the Takata airbag recall.
  • Automakers then notified these owners again, once repair parts became available.
  • Consumers should be able to, in most cases, get their car repaired within hours upon arriving at their dealer, after they’ve been notified that their replacement parts are available.

Geographical Zones

Recalls are prioritized by three zones based on climate:

  • The states and territories with the highest humidity levels are Zone A. That includes the states located around the Gulf of Mexico, plus South Carolina and California.
  • Zone B includes the following states: North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada.
  • Zone C is the rest of the country, including New York, New England, the upper Midwest, several Rocky Mountain states and the Pacific Northwest.  

Automakers Seek Relief

Meanwhile, automakers are either asking for more time to carry out repairs, citing complications in making parts, or they’re asking that certain cars be pulled out of the Takata recalls.

Toward the end of 2017, automakers made numerous requests to NHTSA to stretch out their recalls, citing parts delays. Automakers petitioning NHTSA for longer deadlines included Ford (twice), Mazda (twice), Mercedes-Benz, BMW, GM, and Daimler Trucks.

The agency granted extensions for Ford, Mazda, Mercedes, and BMW in November. Other extension requests from Ford, Mazda, GM, and Daimler Trucks are still pending.

GM filed a request with NHTSA in January to avoid recalling some of its SUVs and pickups equipped with Takata airbags, the third time the Detroit automaker has sought relief, according to a Feb. 6 GM filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The petition concerns the so-called GMT900 vehicles, which include the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups; the Chevy Tahoe, Suburban, and Avalanche; the GMC Yukon; and the Cadillac Escalade.

In the disclosure GM said it hasn’t set aside money to perform the recalls, but it estimates they would cost $1 billion if carried out. In its earlier petitions to be exempted from the recall, GM argued that the design of its Takata airbags differed from that of others in the recall, and its own testing and field data suggests there’s no defect in these vehicles.

NHTSA hasn’t acted on GM’s first two petitions, and it didn’t directly answer Consumer Reports’ questions about how it will evaluate the requests or when it will do so. GM declined to answer questions about its latest petition, saying it would do so only when NHTSA makes the request public. 


What’s Next?

The next phase of the recall will be announced in January 2019. In 2020 some auto companies, including BMW, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota, will re-recall cars that were fixed early in the process. Yes, those vehicles will be recalled a second time. That’s because the early repairs were started before Takata, the automakers or NHTSA had gotten to the bottom of what was causing the violent explosions or before replacement parts could be designed with a permanent fix. They felt that the danger was so severe for vehicles with older airbags that it was too risky to wait. So automakers were ordered to replace older defective airbags with newer, but still defective, airbags, under the assumption that it would take years for the chemicals to break down and become unstable.

Those defective airbags are to be replaced in the last phase of the recall, beginning in March 2020.

For Takata, the recall has led to drastic changes. It has undergone a bankruptcy, and most of the company assets have been sold to Key Safety Systems, a company that’s based in Michigan and has Chinese investors. What remains of the original Takata company is making replacement parts and carrying out the airbag recalls. In an emailed statement to Consumer Reports, the company says it expects to continue to meet demand for airbag replacements without interruption.

Takata is encouraging all concerned vehicle owners in the U.S. to check the recall monitor’s website for the most up-to-date information on airbag inflator replacements.


How Long Will Repairs Take?

Each recalled group of vehicles is expected to take 2.5 years to repair, according to NHTSA. So if the final Takata recalls are announced in 2020, it won’t be until late 2022 or early 2023 until it’s all over. And even then, there are likely to be vehicles with defective airbags on the road because recalls usually don’t achieve much more than an 80 percent completion rate and older vehicles tend to have completion rates significantly below that.

Of the eight groups recalled so far, only one, Group 2, has had more than 60 percent of its recalled airbags repaired. The largest and oldest group recalled, Group 1, involved just more than 11 million inflators. Only 6.3 million (or 57 percent) have had repairs completed. Overall, around 40 million inflators have been recalled and 21 million inflators have been repaired, according to a CR analysis of NHTSA’s data.

Manufacturers can act on their own and do not need a heads-up from NHTSA before notifying consumers that parts are available, NHTSA spokeswoman Aldana said. NHTSA has worked with some manufacturers to time their communications with consumers so that there are minimal delays between the initial notice and the repair, she said.

“NHTSA encourages frequent communication between the vehicle manufacturers and their customers, beyond letters in the mail,” Aldana said. “There should be no delay in notifying customers at any stage of the recall.”


Automaker Airbag Status

CR asked all the automakers involved in the Takata recall whether they are getting enough replacement inflators and how long consumers should expect to wait before the repair work can be done on their vehicle (assuming that the automaker has told them the repair parts are available).

Here’s what they said.

Automaker (brands)

Is the car company getting enough replacement inflators?

How long should consumers expect to wait before getting repair parts installed?

BMWDid not address.If replacement parts are not available, BMW has authorized its centers to provide or assist customers with alternate transportation, subject to availability.
Daimler Trucks/VansDid not respond.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram)YesRepairs should be able to be completed immediately.
FerrariDid not respond.
Ford (Ford, Mercury, Lincoln)

Ford says it has parts available for some vehicles now, depending on the recall and priority group as directed by NHTSA. Ford has permanent repairs available for all driver's-side inflators that have been recalled (2005-2014 Ford Mustang, 2005-2006 Ford GT, and 2004-2006 Ford Ranger built in North America). Ford has permanent passenger inflator replacement parts available for 2004-2006 Ranger vehicles, and owners are being notified.

Once a customer is notified that parts are available to complete their recall, they should contact their dealer to schedule an appointment. The recall repair procedure can begin very quickly.

General Motors (Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn)

GM says it has not experienced any significant delays in getting replacement inflators to meet NHTSA’s replacement schedule.Customers should have their vehicles repaired as soon as they are notified that parts are available.
Honda (Acura, Honda)Honda says it has sufficient replacement inflators to repair all affected Acura and Honda models.There should be no significant parts-related delay for any U.S. customer. Owners of affected vehicles should seek repairs immediately.
Jaguar Land RoverYes

Repairs should be immediately scheduled and performed by an authorized Jaguar Land Rover retailer. If repair parts are not already in inventory, they generally arrive in a matter of days. The repair work is expected to take about 2 hours to complete, depending on dealer schedules.

MazdaYes

While repair times can vary from 1 to 2 hours, wait times might be longer depending on dealer schedules. Mazda has authorized dealers to provide free loaner vehicles upon request.

McLarenDid not respond.
Mercedes-BenzDealers have an adequate supply for the phase we’re in.

Customers are informed when parts are available for their vehicle. They then make an appointment with the Mercedes-Benz dealer and take the vehicle in, so an undue wait is not likely.

MistubishiYes

Airbag inflators are in inventory at all dealers. If for some reason an inflator is out of stock at a Mitsubishi dealership when a customer comes in for the free recall repair, the inflator will be available within 24 hours.

Nissan (Infiniti and Nissan)Yes

Repair parts are at Infiniti and Nissan dealers or distribution centers, available for immediate order. If the parts are not immediately available at the dealership, affected customers are being offered loaner vehicles.

SubaruYes

Customers can schedule repair time as soon as they’re notified; if they feel as though the process is taking too long, they can contact Subaru customer service at 800-782-2783.

TeslaDid not respond.
Toyota (Lexus, Scion, Toyota)YesOnce customers receive notification, they should contact their local authorized Toyota/Lexus dealer to schedule a free repair.