WASHINGTON – Takata halted safety audits for two years in factories making defective air bags linked to eight deaths and forcing a massive car recalls, according to a U.S. lawmaker’s staff report.
The publication of the report came ahead of Tuesday’s hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee, where representatives of the Japanese auto parts maker, automakers Honda and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, were called to testify on the exploding air bags, which can send deadly shrapnel into a car’s occupants.
The staff report for Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Commerce panel, said that Takata had suspended safety audits in 2009 on facilities in Monclova, Mexico, that assemble the air bags, and in Moses Lake, Washington, which makes the airbag inflators.
The sites showed evidence of serious quality problems.
The audit suspension, aimed at holding down costs, came a year after Honda launched its first auto recall over the flawed air bags, according to the report.
Takata resumed the audits in 2011. However, the auditors identified serious quality problems at the sites, the report said, citing internal Takata employee emails. Those emails were not sent to Takata headquarters in Tokyo, it noted.
Takata slammed the report, saying that it conducts regular reviews of product quality and safety at Moses Lake and Monclova, “and at no time were those halted.”
“The report contains a number of inaccuracies based largely on old media articles that Takata has previously refuted, and emails that are taken out of context and characterized in ways that creates a false impression,” Takata said in a statement.
“For example, the global audits referenced in the emails relate to the safe handling by employees of pyrotechnic materials — they were not, as the report implies, related to product quality or safety.”
The flawed air bags, which can explode even in a minor crash, led U.S. authorities to expand the airbag recall to a record of roughly 34 million vehicles in May, possibly the largest product recall in U.S. history.
Nearly a dozen brands are affected, including Honda, Toyota, General Motors, Ford, and FCA. More than a hundred people have been injured worldwide by the defective airbags.
Officials said it could take years to get enough replacement air bag inflators, and the root cause of the problem remains unclear. The defect is thought to be linked to a chemical propellant that helps inflate the airbags.
Kevin Kennedy, executive vice president at Takata’s U.S. arm, TK Holdings, told lawmakers that the company was testing new technologies to correct the problem, which has caused more than 100 injuries worldwide in addition to the fatalities.
“The process of qualifying new products takes time, and for certain types of air bags and certain vehicle models, the best solution today is to use existing technologies in place of the original unit,” Kennedy said.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal blasted the danger of Takata air bags on U.S. roads.
“If our airplanes and airspace were as dangerous as our cars and our roads, corporate officials would be indicted and there would be sweeping changes in the airline industry,” said Blumenthal.