“Happy Manipulating!” This is how an engineer at automotive parts supplier Takata responded in an email regarding tests on the company’s airbags. Takata airbags have been linked to nine deaths in the United States, resulting from the airbag exploding with deadly force. The airbags have been known to deploy with violent force even in very minor crashes, sending shrapnel into the passenger cabin.
The email, dated July 6, 2006, was among many recently unsealed as the result of a lawsuit brought by a Florida woman who was paralyzed after the Takata airbag in her 2001 Honda Civic deployed with excessive force in a 2004 accident and included in an investigative report published in The New York Times. However, Takata did not begin recalling vehicles for potentially defective airbags until June 2014, after a lawsuit was filed against General Motors by a woman who was blinded by an exploding airbag in her car. The lawsuit prompted GM to recall 33,000 Chevrolet Cruz sedans in North America.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The recall prompted an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) into both driver- and front-side passenger airbags. Other automakers began following GM’s lead, with Toyota, Honda, Mazda and Nissan all issuing vehicle recalls for potential Takata airbag defects by the end of June.
In October, NHTSA took the unprecedented action of warning 7.8 million U.S. drivers about potential dangers posed by Takata airbags. The list continues to grow. In September, NHTSA sent letters to companies including Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar-Land Rover, Suzuki, Tesla, Volvo Trucks, Volkswagen, and Spartan Motors requesting information on which vehicles are equipped with Takata inflators.
The defective airbags have been linked to nine deaths worldwide, including the death of a pregnant woman in Malaysia, and more than 100 injuries. Police reports indicate that some victims of Takata’s exploding airbags resembled homicide victims for the nature and severity of their injuries.
Eight U.S. deaths have occurred in Honda vehicles. In November, Honda Motor Company said it would no longer use Takata as its airbag supplier, saying testing data from the manufacturer had been “misrepresented and manipulated.” On the same day, NHTSA fined Takata $70 million for its handling of the airbag problem, also citing data manipulation.
On Jan. 22, NHTSA announced a 10th death in a 2006 Ford Ranger pickup truck. It is the first death to occur in a vehicle made by an automaker other than Honda. Following confirmation of the 10th death linked to the Takata airbags, regulators also expanded the recall, adding 5 million more vehicles to the 19 million that were already under recall, extending it to include Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz. To date, Takata’s airbag recall is one of the largest and most complex recalls in history, affecting airbag inflators in 24 million U.S. vehicles made by 14 auto manufacturers.
In the “manipulating” memo, The New York Times reports that Takata airbag engineer Bob Schubert used the line as he told a colleague that he had been repeatedly told to alter data as a matter of practice, saying he was told by those in his company that this was just “the way we do business in Japan.” He warned his colleague that test data had been altered so significantly that it would qualify as fraudulent, but freely admitted he continued to manipulate reports to disguise true results about how airbag inflaters were performing. Takata has not disputed that it manipulated test data, but continues to deny the manipulation has any relation to the massive airbag recalls.
Sources: New York Times, RightingInjustice, BeasleyAllen.com