Honda may have inadvertently torpedoed itself and Takata with the revelation Thursday that it had asked the airbag manufacturer to quietly make a design change to an airbag inflator design it began installing in some, not all, of its cars starting in 2011. A Reuters news report contained the information.
The carmaker asked Takata Corp., at the time, its primary supplier of airbags and parts, to produce a “fail-safe” airbag inflator. The news report quoted Takata internal documentation including presentations and memos that were reviewed by Reuters. At the time of the request, August 2009, bursting airbag inflators had been linked to at least four injuries and one death. Now, according to many published reports, the death toll relating to exploding Takata airbag inflators stands at, minimally, 10. More than 100 persons have also been injured.
At the time of the stealthy fix, the automaker did not notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Honda did confirm the information following inquiries by Reuters. Previously undisclosed, the request, legal authorities stated, could broaden the exposure of both Honda and Takata in more than 100 pending federal and dozens of state suits. Further, the legal authorities maintained, the request also showed that Honda knew and understood the risks represented by the inflators long before it began its significant expansion of recalls, ultimately reaching millions of vehicles.
U.S. law requires automakers to disclose safety risks and actions taken to prevent them to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But Honda spokesman Chris Martin said the redesign did not require notice to regulators because the safety risk involved Takata manufacturing errors rather than a specific design defect. Martin wrote that Honda asked for the redesign to “protect against the possibility of future manufacturing errors.” He continued that the request was not “an acknowledgment of a larger design flaw with the inflators.” Honda has been installing the redesigned inflators since 2011.
A notably upset Honda, responding directly to the Examiner late last night, said that “Honda categorically rejects the assertion that a redesigned airbag inflator component is evidence that the prior inflator design contained a safety defect. As technology evolves, Honda and other automakers regularly work with suppliers to make design changes,” said Marcos Frommer, manager of communications for Honda North America.
He continued that “It was Honda’s understanding at the time that all inflator ruptures were due to Takata manufacturing errors associated with a previous inflator design. Thus, Honda’s request to Takata to incorporate a change into a new airbag inflator design, was prudent on our part. Importantly, we are aware of no customers experiencing rupture events with the new inflator design.”
Frommer concluded that regarding “Honda’s reporting obligations, Honda does have an obligation to report safety defects to NHTSA, and we fully comply with this requirement. However, it is not NHTSA’s expectation, nor industry practice, that automakers will automatically report every new inflator design to NHTSA.”
Honda’s strong response to the latest development in the ever-changing Takata airbag inflator recall is at odds with history. While maintaining its “obligation to report safety defects” last night, Honda was fined a record $70 million a year ago for failure to report 1,729 deaths and injuries as a result of defects related to its vehicles over a period of 11 years, 2003-2014. The automaker was fined by NHTSA. At the time of the fine, it was a record for the agency.
NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas declined to comment on whether Honda had any obligation to notify the agency. He also declined comment on the design change. Takata said, in a statement, that it had “tested and deployed” different versions of the redesigned inflator “at the request of an automotive customer.” Takata declined further comment, including a response to Honda’s explanation of the change. Takata has acknowledged some of the ruptures were connected to manufacturing errors at its factories.
Until early January, Honda was Takata’s largest customer. At that time, Honda indicated it was dropping Takata and had made arrangements with other manufacturers including Daicel, Autoliv and TRW. Honda does continue to own a small portion, about 1.5 percent, of the airbag supplier.
Informationally, the “fail-safe modification,” which was outlined in technical documents and presentations within Takata, and which was confirmed by Honda, “added vents in the inflator to channel pressure from an explosion away from a driver’s neck and torso,” Reuters said.
Legal experts called Honda’s explanation of the distinction between manufacturing and design problems a “technical argument” at odds with the law and regulatory practice. “You can’t say, ‘It’s a supplier problem, no ours, so we don’t have to talk about it,’” says Peter Henning, a corporate law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “They are responsible for every part on their car and also responsible to report a problem with any part on that car.”
Other authorities, such as John Kristensen, a Los Angeles product liability plaintiff’s lawyer who has worked on major product defect suits against Toyota and others, agreed. Honda officials “made a determination of a defect when they asked for the fail-safe design. They had an obligation to tell the government back in 2009. Good luck defending that.”