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NHTSA ramps up Takata airbag investigation. Forced recall ahead?

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Daniel Becerril/AP/File

(Read caption) The Mexican and the Japanese national flags wave outside the Takata plant, the world's second-largest supplier of airbags and seatbelts, in Monclova, Mexico.

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UPDATE: See below

Here's a short list of places you won't want to work in 2015:

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  • Radio Shack
  • MySpace (it still exists!)
  • The Kremlin
  • Takata 

The first three don't need much explaining -- and if you keep up with the auto news, neither does the fourth. In fact, the forecast for Takata grew even cloudier yesterday as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced plans to ramp up its investigation of the Japanese parts supplier.

The investigation has been brewing for several years, since the first reports of Takata's exploding airbags began trickling in. It appears that the ammonium nitrate Takata once used as a propellant in those devices becomes unstable when exposed to high, persistent levels of humidity. As a result, owners of cars in states along the U.S. Gulf Coast and elsewhere have reported numerous instances of the airbags exploding upon deployment, sending shrapnel through the vehicles. At least six deaths have been linked to Takata airbags.

There's no nice way to put it: Takata's behavior in response to these reports has been appalling. (Though in fairness, neither NHTSA nor automakers have made the investigation/recall process run any smoother.) Last week, NHTSA began fining Takata $14,000 per day that it refused to cooperate with investigators. And on Wednesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced several changes that boost the likelihood of broader recalls of Takata airbags.

The changes included:

  • A requirement that Takata "preserve all air bag inflators removed through the recall process as evidence for both NHTSA’s investigation and private litigation cases" (emphasis ours);
  • A requirement that NHTSA investigators have access to those inflators;
  • An upgrade of the investigation from a Preliminary Evaluation (which generally involves NHTSA employees poring over data from consumer complaints) to an Engineering Analysis (which generally involves NHTSA examining failed parts and trying to recreate problems in lab settings). 

That third change should be the most worrying to Takata. The Engineering Analysis is the second in NHTSA's three-step recall process. If the Analysis suggests a persistent problem with specific parts or vehicles, NHTSA's investigation moves to the third phase, a request for a recall. Companies can refuse to comply with such requests, but that's rare, and it doesn't typically work out well for the automaker or supplier in question.

That said, while nationwide recalls of driver-side Takata airbags are a go, NHTSA reports that none of its preliminary data suggests that passenger-side airbags outside the various high-humidity recall zones are subject to failure. Translation: if you're hoping for a nationwide recall of passenger-side devices, don't hold your breath. 

We'll keep you posted as the investigation proceeds.