Senate to hold hearing on Takata airbag recalls; company subpoenaed by U.S. grand jury
Honda also expected to testify along with NHTSA
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate Committee hearing into the recalls of defective Takata airbags that have so far been linked to five deaths is slated for next Thursday, the committee announced today.
Also, the company earlier today confirmed it received a subpoena from a U.S. grand jury looking into the handling of the flawed airbags.
The hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which held hearings into the General Motors ignition-switch recalls earlier this year, will include testimony from Honda Motor Co., Japanese supplier Takata Corp., and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The hearing, entitled “Examining the Takata Airbag Recalls and NHTSA’s Recall Process” will be held before the full committee, rather than the subcommittee that led panels looking into GM’s ignition switch recalls.
The hearing will be the first opportunity for lawmakers to publicly question Takata officials about the company’s defective airbag inflators that have prompted the recall of more than 11 million vehicles in the United States since 2008.
Lawmakers are also expected to question Honda, Takata's biggest customer. All five fatalities linked to Takata airbags have been in Honda vehicles. The company has recalled nearly 10 million vehicles equipped with Takata's airbags.
"Honda welcomes this opportunity to discuss our ongoing efforts to resolve this very complex situation in the interest of our customers' safety," Honda said in a statement forwarded by spokesman Chris Martin.
Also on the agenda is NHTSA, which bungled a public warning last month to urge drivers to fix vehicles affected by the most recent round of Takata by misstating the number of vehicles involved, incorrectly naming some vehicles as being subjected to the recalls while omitting others.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., will chair the hearing, according a spokesman.
The hearing will add to the mounting pressure on Takata, which disclosed today that its U.S. unit had received a subpoena to produce documents related to airbag defects from a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The company also has been ordered by NHTSA to produce documents and answer questions under oath about its airbag woes by Dec. 1 to further an ongoing NHTSA investigation into the flaw.
The investigation into the Japanese safety-parts maker by federal prosecutors had been previously reported, but today's statement is the first indication that a seated grand jury was seeking evidence.
The company first disclosed the probe in a closed-door meeting with financial analysts in Japan, according to an account from one participant.
Takata told the analysts it is not considering adding production lines to make replacement air bag inflators -- the explosive device that allows the air bag to inflate in a fraction of a second in the event of a crash -- according to the account.
Takata also told analysts that it was making "constant improvements" to the chemical compound used in its inflators, but said they were not related to any defects or accidents.
In a statement, Takata Chairman Shigehisa Takada apologized “deeply” for the death of the driver in a statement posted on the company’s website.
In the United States, Takata spokesman Alby Berman said the company was "cooperating fully with all aspects of the government investigation."
The company said it’s strengthening quality controls to prevent a repeat, and making the utmost efforts to restore trust in its products, according to the statement.
Since 2000, Takata has made more than 100 million inflators, according to industry estimates and company data. Since 2008, more than 17 million cars equipped with Takata airbags have been recalled, including more than 11 million in the United States.
Separately, Takata disputed a recent New York Times report that it had carried out tests on airbags in 2004 in Michigan and found signs of defects, but did not report the results to federal regulators.
The company said in a rebuttal statement that it believes the Nov. 6 story "was based on serious misunderstandings of the facts." It said it was testing airbags for tears to cushions in the airbag modules, not for inflator ruptures, as reported.
Defective Takata airbags have been found to explode with dangerous force in accidents, sending shards of metal into the vehicle.
A fifth fatality linked to Takata airbags -- and the first outside the United States -- was disclosed earlier today, when Honda Motor said a driver in Malaysia died in July after being hit by shrapnel from a Takata airbag. Honda also said the woman was pregnant and her fetus did not survive.
The Japanese carmaker this week expanded its recall for the defective airbags by another 170,000 vehicles globally.
Takata also has faced calls by U.S. senators for a criminal investigation into the company following the New York Times report.
Ryan Beene, Reuters and Bloomberg contributed to this report.
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