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Takata Pressured for Answers at Senate Hearing

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On November 20, 2014, a U.S. Senate hearing took place to examine and discuss the recent recalls involving Takata airbags. Because of a manufacturing defect, the airbags can explode with such force that they disperse metal fragments into the vehicle, potentially injuring and sometimes even killing occupants.

Takata has known about the defect since at least 2004, when they implemented their first recall of about 4,000 Izuzu vehicles, but has failed to take broader steps to protect public safety until recently. At the senate hearing, company representatives and officials from the government’s auto safety agency discussed Takata’s response so far, and suggested additional steps that should be taken to prevent further injuries.

Takata Resistant to Taking Full Responsibility

According to the New York Times, senior vice president of Takata Hiroshi Shimizu testified during the hearing, expressing condolences to victims of the airbag defect. He stopped short of admitting responsibility for the five deaths that have so far been linked to improper airbag deployments.

Representatives for carmakers that have recalled vehicles because they contain Takata airbags—including Honda and Chrysler—were also present at the hearing. Honda, the manufacturer most affected by airbag defects, has recalled just over six million vehicles so far worldwide. They promised to “take care of their customers,” but Takata was resistant to the idea of expanding recalls beyond certain regional areas.

In June 2014, Takata sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) explaining that the defective airbags was most likely to cause problems in areas of high humidity, where recent accidents and injuries had taken place. They agreed to support a recall of affected vehicles in high-humidity areas like Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

Congressmen and safety groups criticized this approach, noting that customers can travel with their cars from dry areas to more humid ones, and that all areas of the country have changing weather conditions.

Takata May Not Keep Up with Repair Demands

On November 18, 2014—just two days before the hearing—the NHTSA demanded an industry-wide recall of driver’s side Takata airbags. The company, as well as 10 car manufacturers, must now comply with the order to repair all vehicles with defective airbag inflators on the driver’s side.

At the Senate hearing, Congressmen questioned Takata about the propellant in the airbags that is believed to cause the problem. The NHTSA has also asked the company to provide detailed information on the formulation used in the propellants, to see if they are too unstable for broad use.

Reuters noted in a recent article that the number of vehicles recalled worldwide because of the airbag defects now totals over 16 million—10 million in the U.S. Yet the manufacturer has yet to pinpoint exactly what’s causing the issue. They have blamed humidity for exacerbating it, but whether it’s the propellant, something in the formula, something in the canister, or otherwise, has yet to be determined. Shimizu told the Congressmen that he believed it was a combination of “the age of the inflator, persistent exposure to high humidity, and problems in production.”

After the NHTSA’s recall demand, Takata also expressed concern at the Senate hearing that they may not be able to keep up with repair demands. The company now faces more than 20 class action lawsuits, an NHTSA probe, and a criminal probe.