Takata Emails Show Brash Exchanges About Data Tampering

When Honda Motor Company said two months ago that it would no longer use Takata as supplier of its airbags, the automaker said that testing data on the airbags had been “misrepresented and manipulated.”

Now, newly obtained internal emails suggest the manipulation was both bold and broad, involving open exchanges among Takata employees in Japan and the United States.

“Happy Manipulating!!!” a Takata airbag engineer, Bob Schubert, wrote in one email dated July 6, 2006, in a reference to results of airbag tests. In another, he wrote of changing the colors or lines in a graphic “to divert attention” from the test results and “to try to dress it up.”

The emails were among documents unsealed recently as part of a personal injury lawsuit against Takata and obtained by The New York Times. Takata said in a statement that the exchanges concerned only the formatting of data and were unrelated to defective airbags that are under recall.

Takata’s airbags, which can explode when they deploy, sending debris flying into a car’s cabin, have been linked to eight deaths in the United States and more than 100 serious injuries, prompting the recalls of almost 20 million vehicles. Regulators have said that millions more airbag inflaters may need to be recalled unless the company can prove that the propellant they use — ammonium nitrate — is safe.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration imposed a $70 million penalty on the Japanese supplier, also citing data manipulation, in November, on the day that Honda dropped Takata as a supplier of its driver and passenger airbags.

The emails referred to the testing of airbag inflaters, which contain the propellant.

Honda would not comment on whether the emails were examples of Takata misrepresentations. The automaker said that it had reached its conclusions after reviewing millions of internal Takata documents. But four airbag experts asked by The Times to review the emails said that they suggested an effort to misrepresent testing data.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

“To have these kinds of offhand remarks shows that this is a systemic issue at Takata,” said Mark Lillie, a former Takata engineer and whistle-blower.

Takata’s practice of manipulating airbag test results dates to at least 2000, just as the company began to introduce a new type of inflater.

At first, Takata’s American engineers appeared to raise concerns about data manipulation.

An internal report prepared by American employees in November 2000, for example, detailed discrepancies in airbag test results sent to Honda earlier in the year. In several instances, “pressure vessel failures,” or airbag ruptures, were reported to Honda as normal airbag deployments, the report said.

Then, in January 2005, Mr. Schubert alerted a colleague in a memo that he had been “repeatedly exposed to the Japanese practice of altering data presented to the customer,” adding that such conduct was described at Takata as “the way we do business in Japan.”

In the memo, Mr. Schubert warned that while the fudging of the data had initially not changed the fundamental conclusions of the data, the practice had “gone beyond all reasonable bounds and now most likely constitutes fraud.”

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

“I cannot, in good conscience, fail to report these issues to you,” Mr. Schubert said, according to the memo.

But the newly obtained emails suggest that a year later, Mr. Schubert was urging his colleagues to manipulate the test data.

Specifically, the emails point to concern about tests conducted at an elevated temperature, the experts consulted by The Times said. Together with moisture, high temperatures are known to make ammonium nitrate more volatile.

In response to Mr. Schubert’s invitation — “Happy Manipulating!!!” — a colleague appeared to be more cautious. “If you think I’m going to manipulate, you really should try and get to know me better,” the colleague insisted. Yet he offered: “I would be willing to deviate for running slightly high” in tests at higher temperatures.

“Hey, I manipulated,” Mr. Schubert responded. The objective, he said, was to help disguise that some of the inflaters performed differently from the rest — a dynamic referred to as “bimodal distribution.”

“I showed all the data together, which helped disguise the bimodal distribution,” Mr. Schubert wrote. “Nothing wrong with that. All the data is there. Every piece,” he added. But then he suggested using “thick and thin lines to try and dress it up, or changing colors to divert attention.”

In a statement, Takata said that the emails were not examples of manipulation.

“Mr. Schubert is referring to the formatting of a presentation, not to changing data, and the emails in question are completely unrelated to the current airbag inflater recalls,” the statement said. “In fact, as has previously been reported, Mr. Schubert played a significant role in raising concerns about the past testing data issues referenced in the settlement with N.H.T.S.A. in early November — issues that will not be tolerated or repeated.”

Takata previously said that it did not dispute assertions that it had manipulated test data but that any manipulation had been unrelated to the recalls. Mr. Schubert did not respond to a request for comment; in the past, he has referred all questions to Takata.

A spokesman for Honda, Chris Martin, reiterated that the automaker was “aware of evidence that suggests that Takata misrepresented and manipulated test data.” But he declined to comment specifically on the documents and said that Honda, which has been Takata’s biggest customer, would be in a better position to comment once a third-party audit of Takata’s test data, requested by the carmaker in November, was completed. Takata is also the subject of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Chris Caruso, an engineer for General Motors and its parts supplier Delphi from 1979 to 2006, said that a bimodal distribution showed the parts being tested were not consistent — generally a requirement for meeting quality standards for automotive safety products.

Mr. Caruso, who now works as a safety consultant in litigation involving airbag issues, including lawsuits against Takata, said that bimodal distribution should result in the rejection of parts by the purchaser.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

“Clearly they are saying the data is not good, but if they can manipulate it, they can make it at least appear to be good data,” he said. “This is really bad.”

Linda Rink, a former senior staff scientist for Autoliv, another airbag manufacturer, and a longtime consultant for airbag manufacturers including Takata, cautioned that a bimodal distribution did not necessarily mean that the part in question was unsafe. And it was unclear from the emails whether the data in this instance was directly related to propellant problems or inflater fragmentation, she said.

Still, Ms. Rink said that any obfuscation of test results was a serious concern.

“If they would disguise inflater data sent to the customer, there is a serious problem with ethics within that company,” she said. “Having a bimodal distribution requires an explanation and a root-cause analysis, not a cover-up.”

The documents were unsealed as part of a lawsuit brought by a Florida woman who was paralyzed after her Takata airbag deployed too forcefully during an accident in her 2001 Honda Civic in June 2014.

“Takata engineers knew of the dangers of manipulating test data,” said Ted Leopold, the lead plaintiff lawyer in the case. “The only thing they did not know was the names of the individuals who were going to be injured or killed, and the date it was going to happen.”

Correction: January 4, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated what happened to a Takata airbag in a June 2014 accident. It deployed aggressively; it did not rupture.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.