10 carmakers meet on air bag testing

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Ten rival automakers that have recalled millions of vehicles for defective air bag inflators met for more than three hours in Romulus on Thursday.

Increasingly frustrated with a lack of answers from air bag supplier Takata Corp. the automakers are banding together to find their own solutions. Federal regulators, safety advocates and some members of Congress also are demanding action.

Takata air bag inflators can explode and fling deadly shrapnel, and the cause is still unclear. More than 10.4 million have been recalled since 2013.

The faulty air bags are linked to five deaths worldwide, and at least 50 injuries. Federal regulators and many in Congress want Takata and automakers to dramatically expand recalls of cars and trucks equipped with the bags.

Last week, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. called for a coordinated, industrywide joint initiative to independently test the inflators. Eight other automakers joined the effort: General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Mazda Motor Co., BMW AG, Nissan Motor Co, Mitsubishi Motors and Subaru of America.

Their meeting Thursday took place at a conference room at a Detroit Metropolitan Airport hotel, auto officials confirmed. Lawyers sat in to make sure companies don’t engage in anti-trust violations.

In a joint statement released Thursday by Toyota, the group’s members said their first goal is to select an independent, well-qualified expert to investigate technical issues.

“The objective of seeking an outside expert to test these inflators is to promote the safety, security and peace of mind for all customers,” the statement said. “Based on the initial organizing meeting today, we feel we have positive momentum and look forward to the next steps of the process.”

Big questions remain: What is the root cause of the failures? Are replacement bags going to develop the same problems in five or 10 years? Is humidity’s effect on air bag propellant the key problem? Although most exploding inflators have been in high-humidity areas such as Florida, that hasn’t always been the case.

Automakers also face the reality that it could take Takata years to make enough replacement parts. Honda expanded its recall by 2.6 million vehicles last week to at least 7.7 million since 2013. It has contracted with two other suppliers to build additional inflators, but they won’t be ready for six months.

Some automakers have expressed some frustration with Takata, which has refused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s demands to expand its driver side air bag recall nationwide.

Last week, in testimony before Congress, Abbas Saadat, a vice president at Toyota North America and a regional product safety executive, said, “Like you, we want additional assurances about the integrity and quality of Takata’s manufacturing processes, particularly in light of previous experiences.”

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said then that the agency hoped to hire outside experts within a week to supplement testing of Takata air bag inflators to find the root cause of problems. He vowed in coming months to hold a public hearing to force the recall of millions more vehicles: “It’s time for the industry to step up.”

NHTSA wants four automakers — Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Mazda Motor Co. and BMW AG— to expand nationwide their regional recalls for driver-side bags.

And the safety agency has formally demanded that Takata 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. The Japanese auto supplier has refused.

Takata told Congress last week it is creating an independent panel to review concerns about quality at its manufacturing plants. Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada said the review will be chaired by former White House Chief of Staff and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner.

The auto supplier also has 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,” Takada said.

The supplier, which has its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, is 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.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York is investigating Takata and a federal grand jury has subpoenaed documents from the company.

Congress is considering sweeping auto safety reform legislation.

“It’s been a bad year for auto safety,” Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said at last week’s hearing. “The American people deserve to have confidence in the cars that they drive are safe, and that the industry and government are doing everything they can to improve safety.

“No one can say for sure that the replacement parts are any safer than the originals,” Upton continued. “What should I say to the mom in Michigan who asks me if she and her family are safe behind the wheel?”