In a record year for auto recalls, even parts manufacturers are coming under the gun. A lot of those recalls have revolved around airbags, and some are now pointing the cross-hairs at airbag manufacturer Takata, who not only produced defective products, but now it’s becoming apparent that they knew and tried to cover up the risks associated with their airbags as far back as 2004.
According to The New York Times, two former Takata employees have levied accusations that the company retrieved up to 50 old airbags from scrapyards, and proceeded to conduct secret tests on them. This is all related to other charges that the company apparently came into the possession of a report from 2004 that outlined how one of its products ruptured and shot metal debris at a driver. The tests showed that there was design flaws in Takata’s products, but instead of alerting regulators and issuing a recall, company executives ordered testers to delete the testing data.
Not only that, but these “secret tests” the former employees are saying took place allegedly happened after normal business hours in the company’s American headquarters, located in Michigan. “All the testing was hush-hush,” one former employee told The New York Times. “Then one day, it was, ‘Pack it all up, shut the whole thing down.’ It was not standard procedure.”
Obviously, these are some fairly grave accusations, but given the fact that many other automakers have been willing to cover up potentially life-threatening problems with their products, it may not be entirely shocking. So far, 11 different car companies have had to recall more than 14 million vehicles around the globe due to the problems with these airbags. But now, not only does Takata have to deal with the fallout of the product failure, but also the fact that they apparently tried to hide the issue from customers and the general public.
The seriousness of the allegations hasn’t been lost on automakers, either. A Honda spokesman said in a statement that the company would be looking into the voracity of the claims on its own. “This is a serious allegation about actions taken by Takata. It is our intention to determine whether anyone at Honda has any evidence that these claims are credible,” the statement said. Honda has been hit especially hard by the supplier’s recalls.
Lawmakers are getting in on the action as well. Crain’s Detroit Business reports that several legislators are calling for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. “Reports that Takata concealed and destroyed test results revealing fatal air bag defects, along with other evidence that the company was aware of these deadly problems, clearly require a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice,” Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey said in a statement.
“If the reports are true, the company must be held accountable for the horrific deaths and injuries that its wrongdoing caused. These allegations are credible and shocking —plainly warranting a prompt and aggressive criminal probe.”
Claire McCaskill, a Senator from Missouri and chairman of the Senate’s panel on consumer protection, piled on as well. “If these reports are true, they show a company more concerned with profits than the lives of consumers — a company that needs to be held fully accountable, not just with financial penalties, but also with criminal charges,” McCaskill said in a statement. “I trust that safety regulators and Justice Department officials are looking closely at these accusations and considering every tool available under the law.”
Of course, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) weighed in as well. “We will leave no stone unturned as we review everything we have and new information we receive,” they said.
The effects of the fallout from the Takata scandal will likely be far-reaching, although it’s completely ambiguous as to what’s going to happen for now. It’s obvious that the company has not only managed to tick off the automakers who purchase its products, but also the legislative and oversight apparatus that regulates the entire industry in the United States. That’s not even to say how the end customers feel about it, which is probably pretty angry.
What makes this whole situation particularly difficult to deal with for consumers is that they can’t necessarily focus their anger at one particular company, as Takata’s products were used in so many vehicles across several manufacturers’ lineups. Although the recall has some similarities to General Motors’ giant recalls earlier this year, including airbag malfunctions and total number of vehicles involved, there are some differences. Of course, if it is found that Takata did indeed cover up the fact that their airbags could send shrapnel flying into vehicle occupants, they could draw another comparison to the GM recalls, in which GM brass reportedly knew about their products’ issues as early as 2001.
Another question is how exactly does this whole mess get cleaned up? With potentially 14 million cars on the road with faulty airbags, there is likely to be some big legal repercussions in the form of class-action lawsuits. Also, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of legal action auto manufacturers take against Takata, as they will now likely be on the hook for servicing and re-installing functioning airbags into consumers’ vehicles.
One thing that is certain: This is one more big knock against the auto industry as a whole, which has suffered mightily in terms of public perception this year. While the car makers themselves aren’t necessarily at fault when it comes to Takata’s products, they are likely to feel the public backlash in the form of declining sales numbers, if that happens at all.
If there’s one thing that everyone in the auto industry can probably agree on, it’s that 2014 can’t end soon enough.
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