Takata appears to have known about the inflator issue several years earlier than it has admitted to

Takata appears to have known about the inflator issue several years earlier than it has admitted to

Alarmed by a report a decade ago that one of its airbags had ruptured and spewed metal debris at a driver in Alabama, Japanese supplier Takata secretly conducted tests on 50 airbags it retrieved from scrapyards, two former employees involved in the tests, one of whom was a senior member of its testing lab, told the New York Times.

The steel inflators in two of the airbags cracked during the tests, a condition that can lead to rupture, the former employees said. The result was so startling that engineers began designing possible fixes in preparation for a recall, the former employees said.

But instead of alerting federal safety regulators to the possible danger, Takata executives discounted the results and ordered the lab technicians to delete the testing data from their computers and dispose of the airbag inflators in the trash, they told the paper.

The secret tests, which have not been previously disclosed, were performed after normal work hours and on weekends and holidays during summer 2004 at Takata’s American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, the former employees told the New York Times.

The paper said all this took place four years before Takata, in regulatory filings, said it first tested the problematic airbags. The results from the later tests led to the first recall over airbag rupture risks in November 2008.

So far, 11 automakers have recalled more than 14m vehicles worldwide because of the rupture risks. Four deaths have been tied to the defect, which can cause the airbag’s steel canister to crack and explode into pieces when the device deploys in a crash. The airbags are inflated by means of a propellant, based on a common compound used in fertilizer, that is encased in the canister, which together are known as the inflator.

Complaints received by regulators about various automakers blame Takata airbags for at least 139 injuries, including 37 people who reported airbags that ruptured or spewed metal or chemicals, the New York Times said.

Takata is one of the world’s largest suppliers of airbags, accounting for about 20% of the global market.

The former Takata employees, who between them had four decades of experience at the company, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of continuing ties to Takata. They told the New York Times they were speaking up because of concerns that their former employer was not being forthright about the defective airbags.

"All the testing was hush-hush," one former employee said. "Then one day, it was, 'Pack it all up, shut the whole thing down.' It was not standard procedure."

Takata spokesman Alby Berman declined to comment to the New York Times on the disclosure of the testing.

The paper noted that, in the past, a spokesman for Honda said it was assured by Takata in 2004 that the episode in Alabama, which involved a 2002 Honda Accord, was an anomaly.

A Honda spokesman, Chris Martin, told the paper in a statement: "This is a serious allegation about actions taken by Takata. It is our intention to determine whether anyone at Honda has any evidence that these claims are credible."

Separately, materials reviewed by the New York Times cast doubt on Takata’s claims to federal regulators that it had resolved manufacturing and quality control problems with its airbag propellant in the early 2000s. Takata has said, in regulatory filings, that by November 2002, it had ensured that there was "proper handling" of the propellants at a factory in Moses Lake, Washington, where it had traced problems with the rupturing airbags.

But as recently as April 2009, Takata engineers scrambled to repair a flaw in a machine at another factory in Monclova, Mexico, that made the airbag propellant more volatile, according to materials from a company presentation given that year.

Two former quality-control managers at the company’s main distribution center in Texas, described in interviews a series of quality problems that arose as the company raced to meet a surge in demand for its airbags.

The Times reviewed internal Takata documents, emails, photos, videos and regulatory filings. Emails show workers raising concerns that airbag units were being delivered to automakers wet or damaged because of transportation mishaps. Closed-circuit television footage shows forklifts dropping stacks of the airbag units.

The dropped airbags were not always properly inspected for damage, especially in the early 2000s, according to the former quality-control managers who said they later pushed for stricter controls at the facility. The two spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

The newspaper said Takata is facing renewed scrutiny for its handling of the defective airbags, which the Times reported in September had been the subject of a short-lived investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that was closed in 2010 without any enforcement action. The federal agency has now reopened its investigation into Takata, a House committee has asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct its own investigation, and federal prosecutors in Manhattan have also taken an interest.

"Claims such as these have raised additional concerns about Takata’s handling of airbag issues and are one of the reasons we’re compelling them to produce documents and answer questions, under oath," the highway safety agency told the paper.

See also: US: Honda, under added scrutiny, strengthens Takata airbag recall

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