by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
2014 has been a “bad year for auto safety,” a House Republican from Michigan said on Wednesday, citing widespread recalls that have impacted multiple car brands this year.
“I’m from the auto state, and I’m sorry to say it’s been a bad year for auto safety,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said. “The latest danger for drivers? Malfunctioning air bags that can shoot shrapnel through the air and make a bad accident worse.”
Upton is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The panel was holding a hearing Wednesday on the recall of defective airbags that were manufactured by Japanese auto part manufacturer Takata.
The faulty airbags, which are believed to be in 8 million U.S. cars, have been found to explode in some cases when they are deployed in humid conditions. Accidents involving the faulty have been linked to at least five deaths.
Upton said he is concerned about the way the recall of the faulty airbags have been handled by both the manufacturer and federal regulators who are supposed to ensure the safety of the U.S. auto industry.
“Drivers are being told their vehicle is subject to a recall but there are not enough parts to fix it, and if they do get a replacement, that airbag may be subject to the same safety failure in the future because we still don’t know if the root problem has been addressed,” Upton said.
The defective Takata airbags were used in cars manufactured by companies like Honda, Lexus and Chrysler.
Takata Senior Vice President For Global Quality Assurance Hiroshi Shimizu repeated an apology he offered in Senate hearing about the recalls last month, saying his company was “deeply sorry” for the drivers who have been hurt in accidents that involved the faulty air bags.
“Even though millions of Takata air bags have inflated properly, saving lives and avoiding serious injuries in hundreds of thousands of accidents, any failure of an air bag to perform as designed in an automobile accident is incompatible with Takata’s standards for highest quality assurance,” Shimizu told the House panel.
“We are deeply sorry and anguished about each of the reported instances in which a Takata air bag has not performed as designed and a driver or passenger has suffered personal injuries or death,” Shimizu said. “Our sincerest condolences go out to all those who have suffered in these accidents and to their families.”
Auto company officials expressed sympathy for the defective airbags too, even as they placed blame for delays in replacing the faulty parts on their manufacturer.
“It is truly heartbreaking to all of us at Honda,” Honda North America Executive Vice President Rick Schostek said. “We offer our sincere apologies to the families of those who have died, to those who have been injured and to those who have been in any way inconvenienced due to the defects in Takata airbags in our vehicles.”
Takata’s initial recall of its airbags limited the scope of its notice to areas of the country where weather conditions are humid, which has been blamed for problems with the parts. The company has resisted calls from federal officials for a nationwide recall, but Schostek said Honda is issuing a wider notification for drivers on its own.
“We understand that Takata has not identified or acknowledged any defect of the driver airbag inflaters,” he said. “We want to inform you that Honda is going to expand our existing regional safety improvement campaign on affected driver airbag inflaters to a national campaign.”
Schostek said Honda was implementing a nationwide airbag recall on its own “because our customers have concerns and we want to address them.”
However, Schostek warned there might be problems producing enough replacement parts to support an expanded recall, though he said Honda was working with Takata to try to find a viable solution.
“We believe there will be a part shortage that may occur, despite Takata’s efforts to increase the supply of inflaters,” he said. “To further increase the part supply, we have been in discussions with Takata and two other suppliers, Autoliv and Daicel, about expanding the production of replacement inflaters. These talks have been encouraging and we believe will ultimately reduce the duration of any shortage.”
Takata’s Shimizu said his company still did not see a need for nationwide recall, despite the pressure from regulators and auto companies.
“Based on the data currently available and our best engineering judgment, Takata continues to believe that the public safety is best served if the area of high absolute humidity remains a priority for the replacement of suspect inflators,” Shimizu said.
However, the Takata executive promised his company would “take all actions necessary to advance the goal of safety for the driving public, including working to produce additional replacement units to support any further recalls that may be announced by automakers.”
Lawmakers on the House panel said Wednesday they just wanted answers quickly on what is being done now to protect drivers in the U.S.
“Safety recalls are often marked by tragedy,” Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said. “But they are even more troubling when the very equipment being recalled is intended to save lives.”
Terry said he has questions about the why Takata and highway safety regulators have struggled to find the root causes of the airbag issues.
“Our highway safety depends on the vigilance of manufacturers as well as the NHTSA,” he said. “Sometimes the regulator is in the best position to find the defect and sometimes it’s the manufacturer.
“The time has come to bring the facts together and make sure the unsafe airbag inflators are off the market, consumers can get their faulty parts replaced, and future recalls are handled better,” Terry continued. “The safety of America’s drivers depends on our collective success on those fronts.”