WASHINGTON – A defiant Takata Corp. told a U.S. safety agency that its demand for a nationwide air bag recall isn’t supported by evidence, and the government doesn’t have authority to tell a parts maker to do a recall.
The company laid out its position in a Tuesday letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration obtained by The Associated Press that rejected the agency’s demand for a recall.
It set the stage for a confrontation at a House subcommittee hearing on the matter Wednesday morning, where a Takata official appeared along with executives from Honda, BMW and Toyota.
The air bag’s inflators can explode with too much force, spewing shrapnel into the passenger compartment. At least five deaths and dozens of injuries have been linked to the problem worldwide.
At the hearing, the executive from Honda, one of Takata’s biggest customers, said it would expand its recall of driver’s side air bags across the U.S. So far automakers have recalled about 14 million vehicles worldwide for Takata air bag problems, including 8 million in the U.S.
A national recall would add 8 million vehicles to existing recalls, Takata said. Those have been limited so far to high-humidity areas in Florida, Hawaii, along the Gulf Coast and in some U.S. territories. Takata has maintained that prolonged exposure to airborne moisture can cause the inflator propellant to burn faster than designed, causing it to explode with too much force.
A number of committee members expressed concern that the limited nature of the recall was confusing to consumers outside of the current recall zones.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the panel’s senior Democrat, said she’s received letters from constituents “who are literally afraid to drive their cars.”
In a statement, NHTSA called Takata’s decision “disappointing” and said it will review the response to determine the agency’s next steps. A week ago, the agency threatened civil fines and legal action if Takata didn’t declare the driver’s air bag inflators defective and agree to the recall. It can impose fines of up to $35 million.
David Friedman, deputy NHTSA administrator, is also scheduled to appear at Wednesday’s hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
In calling for a national recall, NHTSA pointed to inflator ruptures that injured drivers in California and North Carolina — both outside the recall zone.
But Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice-president of global quality assurance at Takata, maintained the company’s defiant stance, telling lawmakers at the hearing that the available data and scientific evidence on the air bags “doesn’t support” a nationwide recall.
Takata also contends that NHTSA only has authority to seek recalls from auto manufacturers and makers of replacement parts, not original parts suppliers. NHTSA disagrees.
Takata said in its letter that it has tested 1,057 driver and passenger inflators taken from locations outside the high-humidity zone, and none of them has ruptured. The company said it will expand production of replacement inflators for the current recalls and will expand the recalls if warranted.
“If those testing efforts or data from other sources indicate the existence of a safety defect beyond the scope of the current campaigns, Takata will promptly take appropriate action,” the company said.
The dispute between the government and Takata left automakers caught in the middle, not knowing whether they should start the recall process or not. Besides Honda, NHTSA has told other affected automakers — Ford, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW — that they need to recall the driver’s side inflators soon.
BMW has said its recalls are national already, while Ford and Chrysler wouldn’t comment.
Kageyama reported from Tokyo.