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Airbag Replacement Backlog Could Take Years To Ease


More than 65 million airbags made by the company Takata have to be replaced in vehicles here in the United States. That is a lot of airbags, especially when you realize there are only a handful of airbag companies. Takata airbags have been linked to at least 10 deaths and more than a hundred injuries. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports that even with the industry working overtime, it could take years to make most of these cars safe.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Everyone has a niche. Scott Upham's is airbags. He's CEO of Valient Market Research. He spent 25 years in the airbag business. Upham used to work for Takata. His company now does an annual study of the industry.

SCOTT UPHAM: And we also publish a daily e-newsletter for the airbag industry, which is kind of a news digest.

GLINTON: So when it comes to airbags you're...

UPHAM: I am Mr. Airbag.

UPHAM: Upham says to understand the problem, you have to get how the industry has changed.

UPHAM: Well, the global airbag industry has consolidated a great deal over the last 20 years. Twenty years ago, we had 25 global suppliers of airbag modules. Today we have eight.

GLINTON: Takata airbags can go off in an accident and shoot sharp metal pieces into the car. It can be a deadly problem. In the U.S., about 1 in 4 cars have Takata airbags. Now, you might think well, you have a problem with one airbag, just get another supplier to make the replacement and pop in their design.

UPHAM: It doesn't work like that. It takes over a year to validate an airbag for each vehicle. It goes through a series of crash tests. It's simulated millions of times on supercomputers. So it's a very involved process that involves the automakers, the safety systems supplier and government approvals.

GLINTON: And it's important to note that Takata used technology that's different from its competitors, which is how we got into this whole mess to begin with. Takata is making replacement bags along with other companies. And eventually most of the replacement airbags will come from Takata's competitors. Problem is, not only do they have to make the replacement parts, but they have to make airbags for all the new cars, too.

UPHAM: It took me over a year to get replacement airbags for my Dodge Charger.

GLINTON: And you're Mr. Airbag.

UPHAM: And I'm Mr. Airbag, so there's that. So you can see that, you know, for some consumers it's taking an extended period of time to get replacement parts.

ELIZABETH TOURNAS: I have a Honda Fit. It's orange and it's great. But I wouldn't call myself a car person.

GLINTON: That's Elizabeth Tournas. Her 2010 car is under recall. She got a notice and ignored it, then by chance took it to her dealer when she wanted to get an oil change when they noticed. She's driving a rental now.

TOURNAS: I realized how severe the damage would be, like, not even to my car but to myself if something were to happen and anyone in my car, really. So at that point I was like all right, no. I'm going to get a rental car. I'm going to have them fix this. Like, there's no way I'm going to drive around - because at that point it's like a ticking time bomb. Like, all you need is one accident.

GLINTON: The recall is complicated by the fact that there are different levels of risk. It's older cars in hot, humid areas that are the greatest threat. Cindy Knight is with Toyota. Toyota's breaking the industry standard and is calling and emailing customers.

CINDY KNIGHT: There was a delay in the beginning of the recall to get an adequate supply of parts going. But we feel we were at that point where we have an adequate supply that people should be encouraged to come in.

GLINTON: It is true that it will take years to replace all the defective airbags. But it's also true that some dealers have replacement air bags ready to go right now. You can't know for sure if you don't check. So why not call your local dealer or look at and find out what the situation is with your car? Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.