Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse for the lawsuit-strapped Japanese airbag manufacturer, Takata Corporation, the skies open up a downpour of damning emails and actions that wash away any credibility the long-time safety specialist had protecting it. All of this comes just a little over a year after three Takata executives were fined and jailed for safety belt price fixing, and it may be the final straw for the once widely utilized and respected automotive supplier.
According to a scathing report by the New York Times, when Honda Motor Company mentioned two months ago that it would no longer be using Takata as a supplier for its airbags, the Japanese automaker made a statement that this was partially due to the fact that testing data on the airbags had been “misrepresented and manipulated.” While this was an entirely accurate statement at the time, it has come to light that it was grossly understated: Newly obtained internal emails from Takata suggest that the manipulation was “both bold and broad,” with Takata employees in Japan and the United States sending messages to one another with phrases like “Happy Manipulating!!!” or asking to change the colors or lines in a graphic in order “to divert attention” from the test results.
The New York Times reportedly gained access to these files after a slew of emails that were unsealed as part of a personal injury lawsuit against Takata. In response to this negative press, Takata said in a statement that the exchanges “concerned only the formatting of data and were unrelated to defective airbags that are under recall.”
For those of you are unfamiliar with this whole fiasco, issues first became public back in May of 2004, when an airbag suddenly exploded in a 2002 Honda Accord, and Honda and Takata both deemed it “an anomaly.” After that, a few slight recalls were issued followed by unsolved investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and then finally, in November of 2014, the NHTSA demanded that both Takata and automakers expand their recalls to cover the entire United States, at which point Takata refused to comply. By May of 2015, Takata had changed its tune, admitting that millions of its airbags were defective, and going on what the NHTSA tells us, affected vehicle estimates of more than 19 million. So with government fines slated to hit upwards of $200 million — the largest civil punishment ever imposed in the auto industry, per the Times — things aren’t looking all that great for the company that has been stuffing “safety devices” in our cars for decades.
But the drama doesn’t end there. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration imposed a $70 million penalty on the Japanese supplier for data manipulation back in November, which just so happened to be the same day that Honda dropped Takata as a supplier for its airbags. In its ongoing investigation, four airbag experts were asked by The New York Times to review the emails that were obtained, all of whom said that it appeared to be a blatant effort to misrepresent testing data. Mark Lillie, former Takata engineer and whistle-blower explains that “to have these kinds of offhand remarks shows that this is a systemic issue at Takata.”
These issues are no new occurrence either, as the report states that “Takata’s practice of manipulating airbag test results dates to at least 2000, just as the company began to introduce a new type inflater,” at which point American engineers raised concerns about data manipulation, yet nothing ever came of it. It was not until January of 2005, when things suddenly escalated; that month, a certain Mr. Schubert alerted a colleague that he had been “repeatedly exposed to the Japanese practice of altering data presented to the customer,” and that he was told that this is nothing to worry about, as this was just “the way we do business in Japan.”
While Mr. Schubert was rightfully concerned at the time, the newly obtained emails show that within a year he was quickly corrupted and was found urging his colleagues to manipulate the test data. But his colleagues were more cautious, responding “If you think I’m going to manipulate, you really should try and get to know me better,” even after Mr. Schubert told them that the objective was to help disguise inflaters that performed differently from the rest — a dynamic commonly referred to as “bimodal distribution.”
“I showed all the data together, which helped disguise the bimodal distribution” Mr. Schubert wrote. “Nothing wrong with that. All the data is there.” But then he added that his colleague should use “thick and thin lines to try and dress it up, or changing colors to divert attention,” to which Takata says is not an example of manipulation, even though it previously stated that it did not dispute assertions that it had manipulated test data.
Chris Caruso, a former engineer for General Motors and parts supplier for 30 years, works as a safety consultant in litigation involving airbag issues and says that bimodal distribution should always result in the rejection of parts by the purchaser. “Clearly they are saying the data is not good, but if they can manipulate it, they can make it at least appear to be good data” he told the Times. “This is really bad.”
While these are undeniably damning words, the lead plaintiff lawyer in the case against Takata has another take on the whole coverup, one which is a little more loaded but just as pertinent:”The only thing they [Takata] did not know was the names of the individuals who were going to be injured or killed, and the date it was going to happen.”