The House of Representatives has weighed in on the Takata issue, calling a June 2 hearing into the seemingly ever-expanding airbag recall. The subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade has set June 2 as the hearing date. The panel is part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has already issued a report blasting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for its handling of the General Motors ignition switch recalls.
Automotive News said late yesterday that the House panel would hold a hearing on the process that led to the huge increase in the number of vehicles recalled. The number doubled from 17 to nearly 34 million vehicles. The action that led to the huge increase last week was Takata’s agreement to a consent decree under which Takata acknowledged there was a defect in its airbag inflators. The announcement was made last week by the NHTSA. Faulty Takata products have been linked to six deaths and at least 105 injuries. Honda has been hardest hit by the problematic airbag inflators because Takata was, until recently, its primary supplier of airbags and subsystems. More than 11 million of the total number of vehicles are Hondas. In addition, as new vehicles are identified and added to the total, the recall is likely to grow. It is the largest in history.
“We have endured a year of Takata ruptures and recalls and families are still at risk. No excuses. … all Americans have the right to answers,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “When it comes to auto safety, ‘maybe’ is not an acceptable answer, and ‘later’ is not an acceptable timetable. It’s past time for Takata, NHTSA and the manufacturers to explain to drivers what went wrong and how and when they can fix it.” The committee, in its report on the GM switch issue, said NHTSA made “critical mistakes,” failing to detect the automaker’s bad switches despite what the panel called “ample evidence” of the problem for more than a decade.
Now, with its focus shifting to airbags, the panel is seeking answers that do not yet exist to the safety issues that were outlined. Instead, Automotive News said, it will take investigators months before they finally find out why Takata’s airbag inflators are bursting on deployment. This means that consumers can’t be confident that some replacement inflators, installed during the current phase of the recall are safe, industry observers, involved with the process, told the trade paper. At the moment, Takata and a 10-automaker consortium, as well as U.S. safety regulators, are conducting independent investigations seeking to pinpoint the cause of the problem.
The ironic part that is now playing out is that replacement inflators made now, while no cause is known, may eventually have to be replaced again, officials familiar with the various probes told the trade paper. This means that though motorists have had the airbags in their cars replaced, as stated in the recall notices they received, may still have defective airbag inflators in their vehicles. The inflators are capable of deploying too forcefully, flinging shrapnel throughout the passenger compartment.
David Kelly, former acting NHTSA administrator, who is now heading up the 10-automaker probe of the problem, explained the situation frankly when he said that if the root cause isn’t found “who knows? We may have this same discussion again in four, five, six, seven, 10 years.” He gave no indication of when his group would have its work complete. “It is apparent to use that we have a lot of work in front of us,” he emphasized. Mark Rosekind, chief of the NHTSA, said much the same thing last week when he emphasized that replacement inflators are safer. “The concern is, are they safe over the long term? That has yet to be determined.”
Meantime, Takata said in a statement that is was “confident that our new airbags are safe.” The airbag-maker added that it is in the process of doing a “comprehensive review to ensure Takata’s current manufacturing procedures meet best practices.” Its review has taken more than seven years and they still haven’t found the root cause of the problem. Instead, the airbag manufacturer has only come up with some “preliminary conclusions” linking the problem to multiple factors.
Takata has found, among other things, that:
· Inflators that have been exposed to high humidity for several years, when combined with cycling between high and low temperatures, are at risk.
· Moisture can cause the ammonium nitrate propellant used in its airbags to deteriorate. The deterioration increases the power of potential explosions, chemical experts have indicated.
· Inflator or airbag design factors may be at fault. For instance, airbags may be prone to leaky tape seals or the shape of the propellant charge used in airbag deployment may be the issues, as may be vehicle design. Meantime, the airbag manufacturer has also blamed manufacturing mistakes and problems with propellant storage.
“It’s a confluence of a whole series of issues that have been going on for a long time,” Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a consultant for plaintiffs’ attorneys, government organizations and companies, said. Indeed, reports have suggested in the recent past that the problem may have had its root in changes that were made to the airbag systems in the late 1990s. At that time, in fact, an engineer, who is no longer employed by Takata, indicated that planned changes were likely to create major problems down the road. Apparently, his prediction was borne out as the first reports of problems with the airbags surfaced as long ago as 2002. The first major recall was not implemented until 2008.
Meantime, the groups probing the problem have independently sought the answers. The probes were conducted by:
· Takata, which studied more than 45,000 inflators, conducting a variety of comprehensive tests and analyses, including CT scans.
· Honda, acting independently of the 10-automaker consortium of which it was a member, as well, bought used and scrapped cars in Japan to conduct tests. Unnamed senior Honda officials, knowledgeable about the situation, suggested the tests indicated manufacturing quality problems.
· Federal safety regulators, looking at the four types of inflators used across many models, hired Battelle, the research group to look for a cause.
· A 10-member consortium of manufacturers, headed by Toyota, that is also conducting comprehensive tests.
“We have a lot of work to do, especially with regard to why this happened in the first place, “Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters last week when the expansion of the Takata airbag recall was announced.