By Paul Lienert
DETROIT(Reuters) - The number of vehicles on U.S. roads with potentially defective Takata air bags appears to be less than half the 34 million initially estimated by federal regulators, according to a Reuters analysis of recall records submitted to the watchdog and confirmed by the car companies.
About 16.2 million vehicles — roughly one out of every 16 cars on U.S. highways — may have one or two defective air bags supplied by Japan’s Takata Corp <7312.T>, vehicle manufacturers confirmed to Reuters. How many times those vehicles may have to be repaired is still unclear.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday said it has not counted the absolute number of vehicles, but said it was aware of 30 million potentially defective Takata parts that need to be replaced. The agency's website still referred on Wednesday to the recall of 34 million vehicles with defective Takata parts.
As some regional Takata recalls are expanded nationally, the number of affected vehicles could grow to 20 million or more, according to the Reuters analysis.
The uncertainty about how many vehicles in the United States need to have one or more air bags replaced illustrates the challenges the U.S. government faces in responding to a safety crisis that has linked at least six deaths and hundreds of injuries to Takata air bag inflators that could rupture suddenly and spray shrapnel into vehicle interiors.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told a congressional hearing last week that the Takata case was possibly "the largest and most complicated" product recall in U.S. history.
In terms of total vehicles, however, other automotive recalls have been larger. Ford Motor Co <F.N> in 1981 recalled 21 million cars to repair defective parking gears.
"We have not yet gone through and said, okay, what is the number of vehicles" on the road that need to be repaired, said NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge on Wednesday. "Some issues have to be worked out before we come to that final number."
The first Takata-related recall for defective air bags, by Honda Motor Co <7267.T>, was issued in November 2008.
As the crisis has spread to include 10 manufacturers and millions of vehicles, the U.S. safety regulator has struggled to define how many vehicles may have defective parts, the exact cause of those defects, how many times those vehicles may need to be repaired, when the replacement parts may be available and how many consumers will have to get replacement air bag inflators again.
Takata in May told NHTSA that it shipped nearly 34 million potentially defective inflators for driver- and passenger-side air bags to 10 vehicle manufacturers. Those manufacturers have issued dozens of recalls since 2008 covering millions of vehicles equipped with those parts, often multiple times for the same vehicle.
A review of NHTSA records shows that some vehicles may have been counted as many as eight times — one for each Takata-related recall.
An undetermined number of consumers have vehicles with two defective inflators. In some cases, one or both inflators have been replaced.
Takata has said it has shipped 4 million replacement parts, and an estimated 400,000 of those parts are defective and will have to be replaced again. That means some owners may have to make two or three trips to the dealership service department for repairs — but NHTSA cannot say for sure.
NHTSA said it has focused on how many potentially defective Takata inflators need to be replaced, based on filings by the automakers.
Trowbridge on Wednesday said NHTSA did not maintain a database of vehicle identification numbers for vehicles affected by the Takata defects, and thus could not easily tell which vehicles may have one or two defective air bags.
Instead, when consumers use the Vehicle Identification Number lookup tool on NHTSA's website, they are linked directly to a vehicle manufacturer's database, Trowbridge said.
Reuters combed through dozens of defect reports -- called "573" notices -- filed since 2008 by the vehicle manufacturers. It confirmed Takata-related vehicle totals with each of the manufacturers.
A Takata spokesman on Wednesday referred questions regarding the number of vehicles affected by defective air bags to the vehicle manufacturers.
(Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Joe White and Tomasz Janowski)