Takata rejects U.S. call for nationwide air bag recall

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Embattled air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday it will not agree to a nationwide recall of millions of vehicles for driver-side air bags, a move that could prompt the government to go to court to force a recall.

“NHTSA has received Takata's disappointing response to our demand for a national recall of certain driver’s side air bags,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman in a statement. “Takata shares responsibility for keeping drivers safe and we believe anything short of a national recall does not live up to that responsibility. We will review Takata's response in full to determine next steps.”

NHTSA said the inflators pose an unreasonable risk of death or serious injury because they may shoot metal fragments at drivers and passengers. Since 2013, 10 automakers have recalled 7.8 million vehicles in the United States for Takata air bags that are linked to at least four deaths and 30 injuries in Hondas, mostly in high-humidity areas.

Takata chairman and CEO Shigehisa Takada said in a statement early Wednesday that it will continue to work with NHTSA. “Takata remains committed to cooperating closely with our customers and NHTSA to address the potential for inflator rupturing. We will take all actions needed to advance the goal of safety for the driving public, including working to produce additional replacement units to support any further recalls that may be announced by our customers,” he said.

Last Wednesday, NHTSA formally demanded the Japanese auto supplier declare that millions of vehicles sold with driver-side air bags nationwide are defective, the first step toward forcing the company to recall the vehicles. NHTSA hasn’t sought a nationwide recall of passenger side air bags.

Now that Takata has refused, the next step will be for NHTSA to issue an initial decision demanding a recall and to schedule a public hearing, where it could hear graphic testimony from people injured in exploding air bags. If Takata refuses following the hearing, the agency would have to go to court to enforce the recall demand.

Last week, NHTSA warned it may begin proceedings to start fining Takata up to $7,000 per day per violation if it doesn't agree to recall the air bags.

Last month, NHTSA asked Takata and five automakers — Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Mazda Motor Co. and BMW AG — to issue nationwide recalls for millions of vehicles with driver-side air bags. None have agreed to do so.

Takata will tell Congress on Wednesday it is creating an independent panel to review concerns about quality at its manufacturing plants -- and is certain to face questions about its refusal.

The announcement comes as Toyota Motor Corp. will tell a House Energy and Commerce panel it wants new assurances that air bag supplier Takata Corp. is producing quality parts. It’s the most significant criticism of Takata by any automaker to date.

“Like you, we want additional assurances about the integrity and quality of Takata’s manufacturing processes, particularly in light of previous experiences. For instance, in 2010 Toyota had to recall certain Takata inflators in Japan to address a different manufacturing problem not involving U.S. vehicles,” said testimony by Abbas Saadat, a vice president at Toyota North America and a regional product safety executive, that was released by the committee Tuesday.

Takata defends its quality practices in its testimony, despite questions raised about procedures at a Mexican plant and leaked emails that raise questions about whether executives put maintaining production ahead of safety.

“We have confidence in the integrity of our engineering and our current manufacturing processes,” says written testimony by Takata senior vice president for global quality Hiroshi Shimizu. “Takata is forming an independent quality assurance panel to audit and prepare an independent report regarding our current manufacturing procedures for best practices in the production of safe inflators, including inflator propellant. Upon completion, the report produced by this independent quality assurance panel will be made public.”

Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada said in a statement the review will be chaired by former White House Chief of Staff and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner.

Takata has also named former Transportation secretaries Rodney Slater and Norman Y. Mineta to serve as special counsels. “They will advise the company as we address the current challenges we face,” he said.

The Japanese auto supplier, which has its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, is also boosting resources there. “I am directing that additional resources and equipment be added immediately to increase the number of tests we are able to perform each day, and we are bringing in additional engineers and statisticians who are recognized in the fields of propellants, combustion and data analysis, to work directly with our engineers in Michigan to help us carry out this critical work,” Takada said.

Senators at a hearing last month pressed Takata to take steps to conduct an independent review, as General Motors Co. did with its delayed ignition switch recall. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York is investigating Takata and a federal grand jury has subpoenaed documents from the company.

Takata air bag inflators may shoot metal fragments at drivers and passengers. Since 2013, 10 automakers have recalled 7.8 million vehicles in the United States for Takata air bags that are linked to at least four deaths and 30 injuries in Hondas — mostly in high-humidity areas — along with some other injuries in other automaker’s vehicles.

Also Tuesday, several small automakers, including Subaru, announced they will expand regional recalls to additional high-humidity areas. Chrysler Group LLC is expected to decide by the end of the day whether it will follow suit as most other automakers have done.

Takata said it submitted more than 360,000 pages of documents and 20 terabytes of data to NHTSA this week in response to its demand for information in its investigation into the air bag recalls, but they haven’t been made public yet.

BMW will tell the panel that it will make loaner or rental cars available to all owners involved in the air bag recall.

Honda will tell the panel that its actions in failing to report more than 1,700 reports of deaths and injuries in all Honda vehicles over a 10-year-period was “inexcusable.”

“I know it is difficult to comprehend how over a 10-year period we could have 1,729 errors in our early warning reporting. Honestly, it is difficult for me to understand as well,” says the testimony of Honda executive vice president Rick Schostek. “We view this as a management responsibility, and we are taking actions to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Schostek said the company is still “seriously considering” NHTSA’s request to expand the driver-side air bag recall.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com