NHTSA pushing Takata for more cooperation

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

New York — The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says Takata Corp. is being fined daily for not complying with the agency’s request for information relating to exploding airbags linked to at least six deaths.

Since Feb 22, NHTSA has been fining Japanese air bag maker Takata $14,000 per day for failing to fully cooperate in a long-running investigation. To date the fines are nearly $700,000.

“We’re still fining them,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in an interview Thursday, saying NHTSA had a productive meeting with Takata last month but hasn’t gotten enough cooperation. “The issue that we’ll start talking about in a few weeks is what are the next steps.”

The inflators, which are in cars made by 10 auto companies, can explode and throw metal fragments at drivers and passengers. At least six people have been killed and 64 injured worldwide.

The 10 automakers have now recalled more than 17 million vehicles in the United States for the issue. The bulk of the vehicles recalled are by Honda, which has reports of at least six deaths and 64 injuries connected to air bags exploding and sending deadly metal fragments flying.

Earlier in March, NHTSA upgraded its investigation into 12 million vehicles with potentially defective Takata bags. It ordered the Japanese auto parts company to preserve all inflators used in testing.

Upgrading the investigation is necessary for the agency to begin the process of forcing Takata to recall air bags if the agency determines they pose an unreasonable risk to driver safety. NHTSA officials last year pledged to go to court if Takata refused to declare some air bags defective.

Takata said in February it has “provided the agency with almost 2.5 million pages of documents to date. Since the special orders were issued, we have been in regular communication with NHTSA staff regarding our ongoing production of documents in response ... We remain fully committed to cooperating with NHTSA in the interests of advancing auto safety for the driving public.”

Fines will continue to accrue until Takata “fully and substantively” explains the documents, NHTSA said in a letter to Takata.

Rosekind said NHTSA has made surprise inspections to review Takata’s air bag testing.

NHTSA has said Takata’s inflator propellant — ammonium nitrate — can burn faster than designed if exposed to prolonged moisture in air. That can cause it to blow apart a metal canister meant to contain the explosion.

Fines from NHTSA are capped at $35 million per infraction under federal law. Since Takata is alleged to have violated two orders, it could be fined a maximum of $70 million. At $14,000 per day, it would take nearly 11/2 years to reach the cap.

In February, a group of 10 automakers named Virginia-based aerospace and defense firm Orbital ATK to conduct independent testing on Takata air bag inflators subject to recent recalls — and said former acting NHTSA Administrator David Kelly was named project manager and coordinator of the joint-testing initiative.

The automakers — BMW AG, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Honda Motor Co., Mazda Motor Co., Mitsubishi, Nissan Motor Co., Subaru Motors USA and Toyota Motor Corp. — are participating in an industry-wide joint testing initiative to understand the root cause of defective air bags.

Automakers want to understand the failures and want assurances that replacement air bags won’t eventually face the same problems — especially in high-humidity areas where most problems have occurred.

Takata has tested about 15,000 air bag inflators, Rosekind said, “and we still don’t have root cause.” Rosekind said NHTSA wants to make sure the replacement air bags are safe and that the pace of production of replacement inflators is moving fast enough to ensure availability.

Since 2008, automakers have recalled about 17 million vehicles with Takata air bags that can rupture when they deploy. In 2014, five automakers — BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Mazda — launched national recalls at NHTSA’s urging for defective driver-side air bags.