Takata Faked Test Data a Year After Airbag Recalls, Report Says

More than a year after defective Takata airbags led to recalls and at least two fatalities, company officials in Japan presented falsified test data about a new component’s design to Honda, their largest customer, according to internal documents.

The fudged data, discussed in an internal 2010 document and cited in a report published on Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation, illustrates what investigators said was a pattern of deceit at Takata that continued long after the severity of the airbag defect came to light.

The new design was experimental and never went into production, but Takata engineers in North America said they felt pressured by their counterparts in Japan to proceed with it despite what they viewed as its “high likelihood of failure.”

Another document in the Senate report showed that in 2013, after a third death and a series of recalls that covered millions of vehicles, a Takata manager wrote an internal memo warning that the company had used inaccurate information to determine the scope of one of the recalls.

“I told the group that it seemed clear to me that the information used to set the range of the recall was, in one case, technically unsupportable, and in the other case, a likely misrepresentation of the production records,” he wrote. The material he called faulty was prepared for meetings with automakers to discuss how they were affected.

A growing collection of public documents show some inside Takata acknowledging, and sometimes trying to draw attention to, shoddy manufacturing processes and manipulated test data.

A 2006 email refers to a set of reporting and production problems as “yet another mess” and suggests that the plant in question “should have been screaming bloody murder a long time ago.”

In a statement responding to the Senate report, Takata said the issues it revealed “are entirely inexcusable and will not be tolerated or repeated.”

Takata’s defective airbags, linked to 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries, have led to a large and complex safety recall. Fourteen automakers have recalled 28 million airbag inflaters in about 24 million vehicles, and millions of cars with potentially defective inflaters remain on the road.

Several lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to accelerate the recall process and to force the recall of every Takata airbag that uses a volatile chemical compound called ammonium nitrate as its propellant.

That compound is one of several factors cited in an independent engineering firm’s report, also released on Tuesday, that describes the root cause of the airbag malfunctions as a combination of manufacturing issues, the ammonium nitrate propellant and prolonged exposure to hot, humid weather.

In such weather, defective airbag inflaters that do not adequately keep out moisture can explosively break apart. The report, by Orbital ATK, was commissioned by a group of 10 automakers.

Takata said that Orbital ATK’s findings were in line with its own engineering tests, which also point to long-term exposure to heat and humidity as significant factors.

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In a consent order issued last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined Takata $70 million for not promptly disclosing the defect. That penalty could grow by $130 million if the company does not live up to the terms of the order.

The regulator has barred Takata from using ammonium nitrate in new airbags, but it gave the supplier until the end of 2018 to prove that the compound is safe in existing airbags, and until the end of 2019 to prove that a version treated with a drying agent is safe.

If Takata cannot meet that standard, millions more inflaters will need to be recalled.

The engineering report issued on Tuesday focused only on inflaters made with the earlier version of Takata’s ammonium nitrate propellant, without the drying agent. Most of the inflaters that have not yet been recalled contain the drying agent.

A spokesman for N.H.T.S.A. said the agency was reviewing the report’s findings.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, urged the agency to take a more aggressive approach and re-examine its decision to let Takata use ammonium nitrate in some of its replacement airbags.

“Auto manufacturers are installing new live grenades into people’s cars as replacements for the old live grenades,” he said.

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