Japanese car-parts supplier to recall 34m airbags after six deaths

Stephanie Erdman, of Florida, who was injured by an airbag explosion in her Honda Civic during a traffic accident last year, testifying to a Senate Committee last year, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

The dubious honour of the largest consumer recall in US history — which was once held by Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol drug — now belongs to the Japanese car-parts supplier, Takata.

34m of the company’s airbags, having caused at least six deaths and having injured more than 100 people, will have to be replaced. But it’s not too late to hope some good can come from this misfortune.

It should be a wake-up call for the Japanese government and the global car industry. It’s fair to wonder what exactly Takata knew about its defective products and when. The company, however, has not divulged itself. Since revelations began trickling out in 2008, Takata has resorted to Japan’s standard playbook for corporate scandals. Ignore, deny, delay — then bow deeply, apologise and get back to business as usual. The Japanese government and media have enabled the company’s obfuscations. Takata chairman, Shigehisa Takada, and his team were never hauled in for a parliamentary grilling.

And Japan’s notoriously docile media consistently soft-pedalled stories that threatened to shame the national brand. Fortunately, foreign media — and U.S. lawmakers, who initiated their own investigation of the airbags — weren’t so quick to let Takata off the hook.

Even so, eight years on, Takata has yet to offer a satisfying explanation for its defective products. Preliminary findings from a German firm that the company hired to supplement its investigation haven’t been very illuminating.

And that should raise troubling questions about the company’s competence. If it can’t locate the flaw that’s linked to the deaths of consumers, perhaps it shouldn’t be in the business of supplying carmakers around the world. Takata’s mess is threatening to drag down other major Japanese companies (Toyota has said it is now setting aside money to cover the costs of Takata-related recalls), who may feel more inclined to offer such chastisements.

Takata would be wise to note how Toyota responded to its own mass recall. When faced with a crisis related to defective accelerator pedals in 2010, Toyota didn’t hesitate to immediately recall several million cars. Toyota’s forthright acceptance of responsibility turned plenty of heads in corporate Japan. But the company’s subsequent success showed that, in the long run, it’s not the scandal that matters, but how you handle it.

Of course, the question of whether Takata can survive probably misses the point. The better question is: should it? It would certainly be costly for carmakers to stop buying from the market-leading Takata; and alternative suppliers, like Sweden’s Autoliv and Japan’s Daicel, may not be able to immediately meet demand. But it’s time for the auto industry to take a stand for safety.

More than 50m cars have been affected since the problem was first detected in 2008. The latest recalls could affect as many as 100,000 cars in Ireland.

So what is wrong with Takata airbags? The driver and passenger-side airbags can inflate with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister and sending shards flying at drivers and passengers.

Takata and car-makers are still trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem, but are prioritising repairs in humid climates, because Takata believes longtime exposure to high humidity can be a factor.

Which carmakers are involved and how many cars are affected?

Worldwide, Honda has the most vehicles equipped with Takata airbags. Dozens of models made by BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota, dating to the 2001 model year, are also affected.

In Ireland, Honda confirmed it will have to replace 9,200 airbags on cars as part of the latest recall. The company has replaced 14,539 airbags on Irish cars since 2010. Nissan has begun the recall of 15,500 vehicles (from the years 2004-2006). The makes potentially affected include the Patrol, Tino, Almera, X-Trail, Terrano, D22 Pick-up.

In 2013, a further 14,000 vehicles were recalled. However, the company said that, to date, there have been no reported instances of this issue occurring with Nissan vehicles in Europe. BMW said 27,000 older model BMW 3 Series in Ireland have been affected — including imports. The E46 BMW 3 Series vehicles were produced between 1999 and 2006. BMW said there have been no incidents of failure among BMWs in Ireland. The recall was for investigative purposes. Toyota has recalled 27,000 Irish cars.

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