Takata to face U.S. House hearing into airbag crisis

Photo credit: TOM WOROBEC

UPDATED: 11/24/14 6:50 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- Honda Motor Co. and Takata Corp. executives will return to Capitol Hill next week to testify about the growing safety crisis surrounding Takata airbag inflators that may explode in a crash.

A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing for Dec. 3 to examine the management and response of the industry and auto safety regulators to the Takata airbag recalls.

Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata’s senior vice president of quality assurance, who was grilled in a Senate committee hearing over the matter last week, in addition to executives from Honda, Toyota and BMW, have been invited to testify before the House panel. David Friedman, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has also been asked to answer questions.

The hearing comes amid growing federal scrutiny into the Takata recalls, with two Senators on Monday calling on Takata to produce documents to answer several questions that went unanswered during a hearing into the recalls last week.

“Americans are weary of ever-expanding safety recalls and we need to know that there is an adequate plan in place to address safety risks,” Rep. Terry Lee, R-Neb., said in a statement.

Lee is chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade and will lead the hearing.

“Our first priority is ensuring that all defective vehicles are fixed as soon as possible, but we must also review the actions leading up to and surrounding the recalls to understand how we got into this mess and how to avoid similar problems in the future,” he said.

Takata has been asked to turn over key documents about the company’s potentially defective airbag inflators to the Senate Commerce Committee after a high-level quality executive from the company was “unable to satisfactorily answer” questions about the mushrooming Takata safety crisis during a hearing last week.

In a letter to Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada, two Democrats on the committee submitted 24 questions seeking an exhaustive list of documents to answer the “many significant questions” that remain about the crisis surrounding the company’s airbag inflators.

The suspect parts may explode in a crash, a problem that has been linked to five deaths and prompted the recall of more than 17 million vehicles worldwide. The letter was signed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who is chairman of the committee, and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who presided over last week’s hearing.

The senators want company reports, documents and emails about the possible defects, including communications from Al Bernat, the Takata quality executive who was named in a recent New York Times report as having overseen secret airbag inflator tests in 2004.

The senators also are seeking company communications that discuss any concerns about the use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant in Takata airbag inflators.

The compound can become unstable when exposed to moisture, and Takata has admitted that manufacturing problems inadvertently exposed inflators to excess moisture.

The senators also want details about the volume and testing plans for production of Takata inflators to replace those involved in the recalls, including the company’s ability and time required to expand its replacement inflator capacity.

The request comes after Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president of global quality assurance at Takata, was grilled during the hearing last week.

Shimizu avoided directly answering many questions posed by senators during the hearing, including a testy exchange with Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., about whether Takata would support the national recall of certain driver-side airbags called for by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“It is hard for me to answer yes or no,” Shimizu told Markey, to which the senator responded “it is not hard for you to answer yes or no.”

In their letter, Rockefeller and Nelson said that Shimizu was “unable to satisfactorily answer many of the questions posed to him by Senator Nelson and other Members of the Commerce Committee.”

The senators said Shimizu was unable to provide information about the chemical compounds used in Takata’s airbags, and whether Takata personnel or internal testing had raised concerns about the safety of those compounds.

They added that Shimizu also failed to sufficiently answer questions about the production and safety of replacement airbag inflators being used in recalled vehicles.

“We still have many significant questions about the circumstances surrounding Takata’s manufacturing of defective airbags and their widespread distribution and installation in vehicles sold and driven in the United States,” the senators wrote.

Takata has until Dec. 12 to answer the committee’s questions. The probe adds to the growing list of federal inquiries looking into Takata’s airbag crisis.

The Japanese supplier has to turn over documents and answer questions under oath to NHTSA as part of the agency’s ongoing investigation into the defective airbags. The company is also being investigated by the Department of Justice.

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com

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