Takata review panel includes 3 former NHTSA chiefs

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Embattled Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. said Tuesday an outside panel that will review its quality and safety practices will include three former top auto safety regulators, a former Treasury secretary and the dean of the engineering school at Northwestern University.

In December, Takata announced it would form a panel to study issues that led to the recall of at least 14.6 million vehicles by 10 automakers since 2013 for air bags that can explode and propel metal fragments that can seriously injure or kill drivers and passengers. At least five people have been killed and 50 injured.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has vowed to go to court to force Takata to declare about 8 million vehicles defective, while the five automakers that sold the vehicles have agreed to do so.

The panel is led by former Transportation secretary and White House Chief of Staff Samuel Skinner, who said in an interview he had recruited the six new members of the “Independent Takata Corporation Quality Assurance Panel” without approval from Takata. He said Takata hasn’t put any limits on the budget for the review and said it will at least take several months for the panel — aided by an outside firm with expertise in manufacturing processes, design and compliance that has yet to be hired — to complete its work.

“It’s going to take a while,” Skinner said, declining to put a date on the panel’s work. He said there was no question “the panel is totally independent.”

He said the panel’s members have no connection to Takata. He said the panel will meet for the first time this week and will hire an outside law firm as well to help review the significant volume of material. He said the issues are complicated, and the panel will do a “check on quality” at Takata to “get to the bottom of (issues) and assure ourselves that the manufacturing quality is what is expected by the American people and NHTSA.”

Skinner said Takata is “taking this very very seriously. ... I’ve seen nothing but full cooperation.”

NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said the agency will review the panel’s efforts. “The investigation and NHTSA efforts to protect the drivers and passengers of vehicles at risk are active and ongoing,” he said.

The panel includes former NHTSA administrator and Treasury secretary John Snow — who is also chairman of Cerberus Capital Management LP; former NHTSA and FAA administrator Marion Blakey; former NHTSA administrator Jeffrey Runge; and the dean of Northwestern University’s engineering school, Julio Ottino. Also on the panel are a longtime former auto executive, Nelda Conners, who has worked at Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp. and Toyota Motor Co.; and John Landgraf, an executive vice president at Abbott, who has led manufacturing and quality assurance at the health care corporation.

The panel will look at internal and external reporting of questions and concerns about the quality or safety of Takata air bags, ensure any problems are resolved, look for ways to improve quality and safety, and improve global coordination of Takata’s air bag quality and safety issues.