Faulty airbags are behind increasing problems for Takata, and in a ripple effect, for a growing number of automotive manufacturers. Earlier in the week, CNN Money reported the U.S. government has asked for a nationwide recall of vehicles equipped with exploding airbags made by Takata. Such a recall would be an expansion of a current recall which covers the potentially faulty airbag inflators in eight million vehicles made by 10 different automakers. Until now, the recall has been limited to vehicles located in warmer states with humid climates, mainly in the southern U.S.
The problem is the flawed airbags may inflate with too much force, causing them to explode and send metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment and injure or kill vehicle occupants. The airbags have been linked to at least five deaths and dozens of injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said prolonged exposure to high humidity can cause the inflator propellant to burn too fast, which causes the metal canister to explode.
NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said earlier this week that Takata could face a fine of up to $35 million if it does not agree to the nationwide recall, CNN Money reported.
In the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing today, Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata’s senior vice president of quality, said the Japanese parts supplier is “deeply sorry and anguished” about each instance when its airbag inflators didn’t perform as designed, AP writers Marcy Gordon and Tom Krisher report. He also told the Commerce Committee that Takata believes the regional recall is sufficient, and that Takata’s tests have not revealed any inflator ruptures outside the high-humidity zones, the AP story notes.
Honda is Takata’s largest customer and so far has recalled more than five million of its cars for airbag repairs. The company acknowledges that four airbag-related deaths occurred in Honda vehicles.
The interesting part of today’s hearing, and possibly an ominous foreshadowing of what is to come, is that Executive Vice President for Honda North America Rick Schostek said during committee questioning that the automaker violated the TREAD Act. The component of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act at issue here, is the requirement for vehicle manufacturers to report information related to defects, reports of injury or death related to its products, as well as other relevant data to comply with so-called “Early Warning” requirements, to the NHTSA.
“I think we acted with urgency, but I do I think we could have moved faster in some respects; I absolutely do,” Schostek said, Gordon and Krisher report. “Have we met our obligations to report TREAD? We have not.”
Schostek did say Honda is conducting an internal review and will provide more information to regulators Monday. Nevertheless, his admission that Honda failed to adhere to TREAD reporting likely means the company will face action—including fines—from federal regulators.
Some lawmakers implied the airbag problem has been deliberately covered up by Takata. Other lawmakers criticized Honda and Chrysler for entering into confidential legal settlements in airbag lawsuits. As they explained, such confidential settlements keep information from the public.
“We’re here because of delay, nondisclosure” and deliberate concealment of the role of airbags in accidents when carmakers privately settled with victims’ families, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the AP story reports.
“Your company deliberately concealed the facts,” Blumenthal told Schostek.
One interesting point to the unfolding story is that Takata cannot produce replacement parts fast enough. However, allegations that Takata executives knew about the defective parts and covered up the information, and now a Honda admission that it failed in its TREAD reporting, introduce new elements. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact these developments have on the automotive industry.