Takata, auto executives queried about recall of exploding airbags

Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president of global quality assurance at Japanese airbag maker Takata, apologizes for the failure of the defective devices, as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 20, 2014
Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president of global quality assurance at Japanese airbag maker Takata, apologizes for the failure of the defective devices, as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 20, 2014 AP

Senior executives for Takata Corp. and two U.S. automakers apologized Thursday for deaths and injuries caused by exploding airbags.

But, speaking at a tense hearing in the Senate, they stopped short of endorsing a nationwide recall despite heavy pressure from lawmakers.

More than 10 automobile manufacturers and 7.8 million vehicles in the United States have been affected so far by recalls of airbags made by Takata, a Japanese company. At least five people have been killed and dozens injured when the airbags exploded too forcefully, hurling shrapnel into victim’s bodies.

This week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration called on automakers to expand the recall from a few high-humidity states – including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas – to the entire country.

Takata’s own investigation indicates that the root causes of the problem likely involve a combination of three factors: the age of the airbag, the device’s exposure to high humidity and production issues that Takata is working to correct, said Hiroshi Shimizu, the senior vice president for global quality assurance at Takata.

“We are deeply sorry about each of the reported instances in which a Takata airbag has not performed as designed and a driver or passenger has suffered personal injuries or death,” Shimizu said.

Pressed to give a yes or no answer on whether Takata supported the nationwide recall, Shimizu was evasive.

“It is hard for me to answer yes or no,” he said.

“It is not hard for you to answer yes or no,” shot back Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat. Markey said Shimizu’s indirect reply was the equivalent of a no.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada became similarly frustrated when he asked Shimizu whether Takata took full responsibility for five reported deaths involving the company’s faulty airbags. Shimizu consulted with a translator for a few moments, then asked the senator to clarify.

Finally, Shimizu said that two of the deaths were still under investigation.

“OK, so let’s take those three,” Heller persisted. “Does Takata take full responsibility for those three deaths?”

“My understanding is that (the failures) of our products in those accidents were an anomaly, so in that sense, yes,” Shimizu said.

Shimizu testified alongside Scott Kunselman, senior vice president of vehicle safety and regulatory compliance for Chrysler Group, and Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America. Like Shimizu, neither man would publicly commit to expanding the recall under direct questioning from lawmakers.

Heller asked Schostek whether his daughter was safe driving a 2007 Honda Civic that wasn’t part of the recall. Schostek paused for several moments before answering.

“A large majority of these issues are occurring in Southern areas,” he said. “We are trying to understand if there is any additional risk out there.”

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who chaired the hearing, was appalled. He said Schostek’s pauses should be noted in the hearing’s official record.

“Perhaps based on Mr. Schostek’s response, you’d better tell your daughter not to drive south in her Honda,” Nelson told Heller.

Nelson complained that the drivers of recalled vehicles remain in danger because not enough replacement parts are available. He extracted promises from Kunselman and Schostek that their companies and dealers would provide customers whose vehicles are on the recall list with loaner cars or rentals until new airbags can be installed.

“The owners should have a right to expect that the cars that they drive are as safe as possible,” Nelson said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat, took Honda and Chrysler to task for the inconsistent way they’d handled recalls of the airbags: Some were classified as safety recalls, she said, while others were merely “service” recalls. She said that sent a confusing message to consumers.

“Senator, I think there is confusion here and the regulatory framework we’re operating under here has different terms,” Schostek replied. “I’ve asked the very same question: What is the difference to the customer? I’ve been told none.”

He said that while he’d have to double-check he thought the recall notifications were very similar, whether it was a safety recall or service recall.

McCaskill said consumers were more likely to ignore a service recall notice, especially if the risk wasn’t spelled out.

“If I get a letter saying, ‘Hey, you could have a piece of shrapnel embedded in your eye and if your daughter’s sitting in the seat next to you, she could die,’ that’s a lot different than, ‘Hey, we’re doing an investigation. Will you please bring it in?’ ” McCaskill said.

Shimizu said Takata was working closely with automakers and the federal government and had devoted additional resources to producing replacement kits as soon as possible. He said the company was committed to being fully transparent with regulators and investigators.

“We are confident that the airbags Takata is producing today, including the replacements for recalled units, are safe,” he testified.

Also testifying at the hearing was a Florida woman, Stephanie Erdman, who was badly injured when a defective airbag in her 2002 Honda Civic ruptured in an accident on Sept. 1, 2013.

Erdman, an Air Force officer from Destin, Fla., suffered severe shrapnel wounds in her face.

“I was instantly blind on my right side. And then I felt gushing blood. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to bleed out,” Erdman said in emotional testimony in front of a poster-sized photo of her bloodied face. At times she struggled to hold back tears.

Erdman said her Honda-certified dealership was notified about a recall for the driver’s-side airbag in February of 2010, but the dealership never told her about the recall, repaired her vehicle or warned her, even though she took her Honda there three times for service.

“They did nothing to try and make sure that me and my family were safe before the accident happened,” she told lawmakers. “It was not until September 4, 2013 – three days after my accident – that Honda called and left a message on my phone about the recall.”