TOKYO (Bloomberg) -- Carmakers continue to support Takata Corp. even as the Japanese supplier suffers widening scrutiny by the U.S. government over airbags blamed for at least five deaths, including its new push for a nationwide recall.
Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and General Motors Co. have worked with Takata on new car features over so many years that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to quickly move to alternative suppliers, said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc.
Ford’s new Edge crossover, for example, offers a steering system co-developed with Takata, and last week, Executive Chairman Bill Ford told reporters the companies’ relationship is intact.
“Takata has so much product breadth that I don’t really see that they could just disappear,” Sullivan said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday called for the airbag recalls, which have involved more than 10 million cars over the last six years, to be broadened beyond high-humidity areas. Globally, about 16 million recalls have been tied to the company's airbags.
Takata has received a subpoena from a federal grand jury demanding documents and explanations for the defects, and a company official will testify Thursday before the U.S. Senate.
The NHTSA demand adds to scrutiny that’s cut Takata’s share price by more than half since Sept. 30 as investors fret it may lose business. Recalling cars nationwide may put “lives at risk” by diverting replacement parts from where they’re needed, Alby Berman, a Takata spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
Airbags comprised 39 percent of Takata’s business last fiscal year, at 220 billion yen ($1.9 billion). Seat belts accounted for about a third of its sales at 178 billion yen, followed by other products such as steering wheels. Takata also is competing to outfit cars with advanced sensors to detect when a driver is veering across lanes or heading for a collision.
Ford said in May that a system called Adaptive Steering would start going into models within 12 months. Available on the 2015 Edge, it uses a motor and gearing in the steering wheel to assist in turns, making the car easier to maneuver at slow speeds and smoother to drive on the highway.
“We work with a lot of suppliers, and we have a good relationship with them,” Bill Ford said of Takata last week at an event marking initial production of the new F-150 pickup.
Early reviews of Ford and Takata’s system have been positive. While noting BMW, Audi and Lexus offer similar features, the enthusiast magazine Car and Driver in May called it “the most clever arrangement we’ve experienced to date.”
Ford isn’t alone in pairing up with Takata for close work on a new feature. GM and Takata developed the industry’s first front center air bags, which deploy from the driver’s seat to prevent head and spinal injuries.
The devices went into the 2013 Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave crossovers and are spreading to other models, a sign of a close relationship, said Alan Adler, a spokesman for GM. The automaker aired a 30-second Traverse television ad plugging the airbag as “American ingenuity.” GM doesn’t comment on future product relationships, Adler said.
The front center airbag has potential to save lives in side-impact crashes, said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which said all three of GM’s crossovers were 2013 Top Safety Picks.
“There had been a lot of discussion about how to protect occupants from striking each other in side-impact crashes,” Lund said by telephone. “But this was the first real effort to put something in there that actually does that -- an airbag in the center of the vehicle that prevents two occupants from interacting in a side impact.”
Ford added Takata to its Aligned Business Framework, the automaker’s network of key suppliers, in May 2010. GM’s then-CEO Dan Akerson personally presented Takata’s founding-family scion Shigehisa Takada with GM’s Supplier of the Year award in March 2011 for Takata’s work on airbags, steering wheels and seat belts.
Jim Lentz, the CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, said he’s confident Takata is doing its best to deliver high-quality replacement air-bag inflators.
“I don’t think anybody wants to put anyone’s lives at risk,” Lentz said in a Tuesday interview.
The recognitions and work with Takata by Ford and GM shows the auto-parts maker maintains tight relationships with more companies than just Honda, its top customer and one of its biggest shareholders.
Honda has called back almost 6.2 million cars worldwide to fix Takata air bags since 2008. The company is sending Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America, to testify along with Takata on Nov. 20 before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The top priority for Honda now is to handle the recalls and investigate problems with airbags, said Kosuke Kachi, a spokesman for the carmaker. Honda will “try our best to support our customers with Takata as soon as possible,” he said.
“It’s not necessarily the Japanese way to let them fail,” said AutoPacific’s Sullivan, who worked for Panasonic Corp.’s auto unit before becoming an industry analyst. “I’m sure they’ll be there to bail them out.”