A faulty air bag part that can explode and send shrapnel into the passenger cabin is responsible for the global recall of more than 3.3 million cars manufactured by Honda, Nissan, Toyota and General Motors, and will likely lead to more recalls.
The problem was reported to Japanese safety regulators late Wednesday night, but since the part manufactured by Takata Corp. is used internationally, it probably affects more automakers.
"Takata supplies a lot of U.S. manufacturers too," said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com.
All of the recalled cars announced so far were produced from 2000 to 2004.
In some of these vehicles, the propellant housed in a metal canister in the system can burn too quickly, causing the container to explode. If that happens, metal shards will rocket up into the windshield and ricochet down at the passenger's feet.
Normally, gases from the propellant fill up the air bag, which protects the passenger in a crash, said Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman.
"It is designed to burn at a controlled rate, even at just a fraction of a second," Martin said. "If the propellant burns too quickly, the little holes in the canister are not enough to release all that pressure and the canister can break apart."
Honda told Japanese safety regulators that it will recall 1.1 million vehicles, while Toyota recalled 1.7 million vehicles, including about 510,000 in the U.S. Toyota believes that about 170,000 of those vehicles were built with the Takata air bag system that has caused the problem, but will have to inspect all of the cars, said Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman.
Nissan recalled 480,000 vehicles globally, but was still determining how many in North America.
General Motors said it would recall about 55,000 Pontiac Vibes from the 2003 model year sold in the U.S. and Canada. GM has discontinued the Pontiac line, so Vibe customers will be taken care of at other GM dealerships, said Alan Adler, a GM spokesman.