Even as researchers finally zeroed in on the cause of deadly Takata airbag failures, a Senate committee laid out some explosive charges against the Japanese auto supplier.
Citing internal documents, the report published by the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation shows Takata engaged in a pattern of falsifying test data and incorrectly reporting on the scope of the airbag defect, something that likely reduced the number of vehicles targeted for recall.
The results of the year-long research study and other evidence provided to the Senate and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could lead to yet another ramp-up of that recall effort. As many as 50 million more vehicles could be targeted. To date, about 25 million have been recalled, making this the largest service action in U.S. automotive history.
The new Senate report contained a number of potentially damning internal Takata documents, including one indicating the supplier falsified test results to try to sell a component redesign to Honda, the company’s biggest customer. Privately, a North American engineer reported a “high likelihood of failure,” though he also indicated coming under strong pressure from Japan to move forward.
Another document, reports the New York Times, suggests that Takata intentionally misled investigators about the breadth of one of the airbag recalls.
(Reliability woes worsen, warns J.D. Power. For more, Click Here.)
“I told the group that it seemed clear to me that the information used to set the range of the recall was, in one case, technically unsupportable, and in the other case, a likely misrepresentation of the production records,” wrote an American Takata executive referring to material used to help automakers figure out how to respond.
Other internal e-mails warn that ongoing production problems at two Takata plants in North America were “yet another mess” that should have been solved “a long time ago.”
The deceipt apparently went on for years. As far back as January 2005, a U.S. engineer for Takata, Bob Schubert, wrote an internal memo complaining the company was “prettying up” data. “It has come to my attention that the practice has gone beyond all reasonable bounds and now most likely constitutes fraud,” Schubert wrote.
Takata initially blamed those manufacturing problems for the occasional, but potentially deadly, failure of some of its airbag failures. Under certain conditions, they were over-inflate, sending plastic and metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment, a problem so far blamed for at least 10 deaths and over 100 injuries. Fourteen automakers have so far been touched by the recall.
(Click Here for more on the CR Automotive Report Card.)
The disclosure of the various internal documents could cause new headaches for Takata, which is facing numerous civil lawsuits, a criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, and ongoing scrutiny by NHTSA. That agency fined the maker $70 million last year, while warning Takata the penalty could grow to $130 million if it fails to adopt more active safety measures.
Research conducted by rocket science firm Orbital and released to the public on Tuesday shows three key issues contribute to airbag inflator failures:
- Those manufacturing defects;
- The presence of moisture, especially in high humidity regions; and
- The very propellant used to inflate the bags.
Takata has told NHTSA and the few customers it has left that it will move away from explosive ammonium nitrate for its inflators. But that material is still being used in the millions of replacement parts already used as part of the recall.
“Auto manufacturers are installing new live grenades into people’s cars as replacements for the old live grenades,” Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, said during Tuesday’s hearing on Capitol Hill.
(Cause finally found for exploding Takata airbags. Click Here for that breaking story.)
Because of its worrisome instability, there is a growing call from safety advocates to replace all Takata inflators using ammonium nitrate. If that recommendation is followed, another 50 million vehicles would be targeted. And millions more vehicles that have already had their inflators replaced might be called back for another repair.