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Takata Air Bag Recall Could Take Years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Takata, the Japanese company, doubled their recall of defective air bags to nearly 34 million cars this week, the largest U.S. automotive recall ever. Now, Honda recalled some of its cars with Takata air bags back in 2008. In the ensuing years, other car companies gradually followed suit. Six deaths were linked to those air bags, but despite pressure from Congress, Takata refused to expand its recall until this week. Sonari Glinton from NPR's Planet Money team has been following Takata's troubles over the last several years. He joins us from NPR West now.

Sonari, thanks for being with us.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It's good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Concerns about Takata's air bags go back a number of years now. Did something change this week that got an executive somewhere in the company to say we'd better recall 34 million vehicles?

GLINTON: One of the interesting things about Takata is that it's not a customer-facing company, so if this had been, say, a Honda or Toyota, we would've gotten to this point much quicker because the American people would have demanded it. A company like Takata doesn't have the same concerns as a company like Honda. But now there's been so much pressure...

SIMON: I've got to - why? I don't understand that.

GLINTON: Because Takata's customers are car companies, and car companies' customers are you and I. And so if you see enough headlines about Honda and a recall, that's going to be problematic for you as a consumer, you might think differently about a car. Well, most people haven't heard of Takata. You're not buying a Takata, you're buying a Toyota. And so they don't have the same sort of customer responsibility that a car company has to maintain - not only a brand, but a relationship with its customers. So recently, car companies have been recalling cars with an overabundance of caution. If there is even an appearance of a problem, they've been making a recall, which is a problem because the average consumer - you know, it becomes so much background noise that people don't understand. I cover the auto industry and I've realized that I had a recall on my car - not an air bag recall - and I had no idea.

SIMON: This is the largest recall of cars in U.S. history. What change might this make in the road?

GLINTON: An interesting thing that's happening is that the car companies, some of them are really attacking this recall, doing things that they've never done. You would never have heard a car company advertise about a recall, right? Because it's advertising about a defect. But this defect, where shrapnel can come out of the air bag and injure the occupants, it's so important to get it fixed, that Honda, for instance, has been going to Facebook and other car companies have been sending you multiple letters, automated phone calls. This is unprecedented that you would be saying, hey guys, there's something wrong with our cars - in advertising - come in and get them fixed. That's a real change.

SIMON: So when executives are deciding what to do, does somebody in the room say, this is what's best for the consumer?

GLINTON: Well, you know, the government is supposed to do that. That's what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does. They're the ones who actually make the recalls, but almost all recalls are voluntary because no one wants the news to be said that the government forced you to recall a product. Do you think it has a problem? It maybe has a problem? Let's get it recalled - I don't want to be the executive who's sitting in the hot seat on Capitol Hill explaining why my car has killed this many people.

SIMON: NPR's Sonari Glinton, thanks so much.

GLINTON: It's good to be with you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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