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Latest recall scandal has no easy solution in sight

2014 has been a big year for auto recalls. The General Motors ignition switch recall scandal was apparently the tip of the iceberg, and many other automakers have either announced or expanded recalls since then.

Among the most pressing recalls at present is one that isn’t just limited to a single automaker. Rather, a single defective part has prompted 11 automakers to recall some 14 million vehicles over the past two years. What do all these vehicles have in common? The answer is an allegedly defective air bag propellant that can explode, sending shrapnel into the cabin of the vehicle.

These defective air bags were manufactured by Takata, a Japanese auto parts supplier. According to news sources, the propellant used to rapidly inflate air bags is either too strong or otherwise unstable. The canister containing the propellant can explode even during minor car accidents. And when it does, metal shards can essentially become bullets. At least three deaths and more than 100 injuries have already been linked to the defective auto part.

Unfortunately, there is a problem beyond the initial defect. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is so concerned about the defect that it is warning vehicle owners to “act immediately” to have them replaced. But in many cases, acting immediately is not an option.

Takata does not have replacement parts available for all who need them. This means that repair shops and dealerships cannot fix the problem and are sending customers away.

Toyota is considering simply disabling the air bags until replacement parts are available. Car owners would be urged not to use the front passenger seat. This is obviously not an ideal situation. But under the circumstances, no air bags at all would likely be safer than the defective ones.

A better solution than disabling air bags would be to give consumers loaner cars to drive until their cars are fixed. But most automakers will likely avoid this option if they can due to the costs involved.

The automobile market worldwide is highly competitive and predicated on manufacturing volume. In their efforts to manufacture vehicles quickly and cheaply, automakers cannot continue to cut corners and forego quality control measures. Human lives are too high a price to pay for sales profits.

Source: The New York Times, “Few Answers After an Alert on Takata Airbags,” Hiroko Tabuchi and Christopher Jensen, Oct. 21, 2014

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