WASHINGTON -- A senior Takata Corp. quality assurance executive has been added to the list of witnesses to testify during Thursday’s U.S. Senate committee hearing on the Takata airbag recalls.
Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president of global quality assurance, will address the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, according to an aide for Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Sen. Nelson will lead the hearing.
Shimizu will join senior executives from Chrysler Group and American Honda plus the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's top official as witnesses expected to testify during the hearing Thursday. According to a final list released by Sen. Nelson’s office, the witnesses in addition to Shimizu are:
• Scott Kunselman, senior vice president and head vehicle safety and regulatory compliance for Chrysler.
• Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America.
• David Friedman, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
• Stephanie Erdman, a Takata airbag defect victim from Florida.
The hearing will focus on defective Takata airbags that could spew metal shrapnel during deployment. The defect has been linked to at least five deaths and prompted the recall of more than 11 million vehicles from 10 different manufacturers since 2008. The hearing will also probe how automakers and NHTSA have responded to the problem.
The committee is chaired by outgoing U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
A Chrysler spokesman on Monday confirmed that Kunselman will testify and answer questions at the panel, but declined to elaborate. Kunselman was tapped in August to oversee recalls as the head of the automaker’s new vehicle safety and regulatory office created that same month.
In that role, Kunselman reports directly to CEO Sergio Marchionne and supervises the company’s interactions with government regulators, including NHTSA. Kunselman was previously in charge of the automaker’s purchasing department.
In a statement from Honda spokesman Chris Martin, the company confirmed Schostek's attendance, adding "Honda welcomes this opportunity to discuss our ongoing efforts to resolve this very complex situation in the interest of our customers’ safety."
Honda has been the automaker most affected by the faulty Takata airbags. As Takata’s biggest single customer, Honda has accounted for about 7.6 million of the U.S. vehicles recalled for Takata airbags dating back to 2008, according to Reuters calculations.
All told, more than 11 million U.S. vehicles and 17 million units globally have been recalled in response to the airbag defects, Reuters has reported.
Chrysler has called back about 371,000 vehicles for Takata airbags, including the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Dodge Ram and Dakota pickups in one of the several informal “field actions” that automakers began conducting in the summer.
These less-formal field actions were requested by NHTSA to replace Takata airbags in vehicles in high-humidity areas -- Florida, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the case of Chrysler -- that NHTSA has identified as being most at risk. Chrysler says it has not identified a defect in these vehicles, but agreed to replace airbag inflators at NHTSA’s request to aid the ongoing agency investigation into Takata airbags.
Chrysler told NHTSA earlier this month that the company knows of one incident of a driver-side airbag rupture of a Chrysler vehicle in which the driver sustained “non-life threatening injuries” that occurred in South Florida. The automaker also said that it expected to start replacing the potentially defective Takata airbag inflators in December.
Lawmakers are expected to ask tough questions about the rash of recalls and regional field actions that have stemmed from Takata’s airbag inflators at Thursday’s hearing.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and one of the most outspoken committee members on auto safety matters, said in a statement last week that he planned to probe allegations raised in a New York Times report earlier this month that Takata executives ordered secret tests of airbag inflators and destroyed their results in 2004. Takata has said the allegations are untrue, calling the Times story “fundamentally inaccurate.”
“Takata’s apparent concealment and lies about these airbags killed and injured people across the country and around the globe. Takata, the automobile manufacturers, and NHTSA must tell consumers the truth about these defects,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
Thursday’s hearing comes as Takata is facing mounting pressure from federal officials. The Japanese supplier disclosed last week that it had received a subpoena from a U.S. grand jury probing the company’s handling of the recalls. Takata is also under a special order from NHTSA to produce documents dating back more than a decade and answer questions under oath about the troubled inflators by Dec. 1.
The hearing also comes as the Obama administration, amid calls from lawmakers to toughen the agency, is reportedly close to tapping a new top official to oversee highway safety. NHTSA has been without a full-time chief since David Strickland, NHTSA’s previous administrator, stepped down last December. Deputy administrator Friedman has served as NHTSA’s de facto boss since then.