Volkswagen Resisted Takata Airbag Recall Initially

February 17, 2016

Volkswagen resisted U.S. government efforts to recall more cars and trucks to fix potentially deadly Takata airbags – telling safety regulators that a recall isn’t necessary.

But the German automaker, already in hot water with the government for cheating on U.S. pollution tests, eventually agreed to the recall, according to documents posted Friday on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.

Volkswagen AG is recalling a total of 850,000 Audi and VW vehicles in the U.S. from model years 2006 to 2014. But in a letter to the safety agency, the company said the request to recall most of the Volkswagens “may be overbroad.” The letter said most VW and Audi vehicles have airbag inflators made at Takata’s factory in Freiberg, Germany, which have not experienced failures like those made in the U.S. and Mexico.

The letter and lengthy negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency over how to fix diesel engines that pollute too much show a willingness on Volkswagen’s part to push back against federal agencies when it doesn’t agree. But in the EPA case at least, it’s likely to bring millions of dollars in fines and perhaps even criminal charges filed by the Justice Department.

VW’s letter said both the Mexico and U.S. factories had problems controlling humidity, which has been blamed for causing the inflator failures. But deficiencies at the plants were resolved when a U.S. factory in LaGrange, Georgia, closed in 2005 and air conditioning was added to a factory in Monclova, Mexico, in 2011, the letter said.

“Our understanding is that Takata’s Freiberg plant does not suffer from the same deficiencies,” VW wrote in the Feb. 9 letter to NHTSA. The German plant has air conditioning, VW wrote. “We further understand that the Freiberg plant enjoys more consistent personnel, adding to the stability of the product there,” the letter said.

Last month NHTSA pushed VW and five other automakers to recall over 5 million additional vehicles after a Takata airbag inflator exploded in a 2006 Ford Ranger in December, killing a 52-year-old South Carolina man. The agency also cited test results that showed four inflators blew apart in a different model of Takata inflator.

Volkswagen uses inflators like the ones in the Ranger and the ones that failed in testing, according to documents.

But VW said it believes testing will vindicate Takata inflators made in Germany and at the Mexican plant after 2011. “We respectfully request that should such results be shown, the agency work with Volkswagen and other manufacturers to revisit the scope of these recalls,” the company wrote.

Unlike most other airbag makers, Takata uses the chemical ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion and quickly inflate its airbags. But the chemical can deteriorate when exposed for a long time to high temperatures and humidity. If that happens, the chemical can blow apart a metal canister designed to contain the explosion, hurling shrapnel into drivers or passengers.

At least 11 people have died worldwide from the problem and 139 have been injured.

By agreeing to the recall, Volkswagen avoided a showdown with NHTSA at the same time it is negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency about the pollution test cheating.

VW admitted last year to installing computer software on 2.0-liter diesel engines in some of its most popular models, including the Beetle, Jetta, Golf and Passat. The software recognizes when the cars are being tested on a treadmill and turns on pollution controls. It turns them off when the cars return to real roads, allowing them to pollute at a rate 40 times higher than allowed by law.

The company and the EPA have been haggling over plans to fix the cars for nearly five months with no solution in sight. There are about 500,000 Volkswagen diesels on U.S. roads with the software and about 11 million worldwide. About 100,000 cars with bigger diesel engines also had cheating software and must be repaired.

Also last month, the U.S. Justice Department, representing the EPA, filed a civil suit that could potentially expose VW to more than $20 billion in fines under the Clean Air Act. VW could rack up additional civil penalties based on the facts determined at trial.

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