Air bag problems will persist with or without Takata, company matron says
Expiry dates, not lifetime guarantees, are the way to a solution
TOKYO -- Massive recalls over a series of deaths and other accidents linked to its air bags have forced Takata into bankruptcy. For a company dedicated to making products that keep people safe, the yearslong debacle has created an "abyss of regret," said Akiko Takada, a senior corporate adviser to the company and a member of its founding family.
The Nikkei Asian Review recently spoke with Takada, whose late husband was CEO Juichiro Takada and whose son is current CEO Shigehisa Takada, to see why the 84-year-old company was unable to keep its problems from swelling and what she thinks the auto industry can do to prevent similar problems from recurring.
Q: Takata has the distinction of being the first company to mass-produce air bags for drivers, but it has also gained notoriety for the series of fatal and other serious accidents caused by its products.
A: Since its founding in 1933, Takata has tried to stay ahead of the times, developing safety systems aimed at eliminating casualties in traffic accidents.
Until just before his death, former chief executive (Juichiro Takada) continued to stress the importance of being uncompromising in our approach to quality. The company's current troubles have created an abyss of regret for us because we have staked our business on safety. We have caused the victims and all other stakeholders a great deal of trouble. I don't think we will ever be forgiven, no matter how much we apologize.
Q: Why didn't Takata rein in the problem after the first recall, in the U.S. in 2008?
A: Explosives require a high level of expertise, and preventing phenomena that lead to accidental explosions is difficult. So we spent a long time examining the possible causes of the trouble. Even after we fixed what was wrong in the production process, we still encountered cases where we could not pinpoint the cause.
We worked closely with automakers to root out the problems until 2013 or so. But then we became unable to cooperate due to disputes over who was responsible for bearing the huge expenses, as well as because of criminal and civil lawsuits in the U.S. This is one reason [why Takata failed to keep the scandal from expanding].
We should have acted voluntarily and worked with automakers more closely.
Q: Don't you think it would have been better if your son, as CEO, had spoken at public hearings and press conferences in the U.S. to address the mounting consumer concerns?
A: [The top management] was preparing to attend public hearings and press conferences in the U.S., but the difficulty of coordinating all the people involved made that impossible. The former chief executive always used to say: "We have grown into what we are today thanks to the understanding and cooperation of automakers. We should stay in the background."
But now I think government authorities, automakers and Takata should have held briefing sessions for the public.
Q: How does Takata view its responsibility for preventing a recurrence of the problem?
A: Problems of the kind seen with Takata's air bags will not go away. That's because they can't be solved simply by removing ammonium nitrate (a volatile chemical compound used by Takata). We met more than 10 Japanese and American experts on explosives. They said there is no explosive that will not degrade over time, and asked who had decided to offer permanent guarantees for air bags.
Air bags that use other explosives also run the risk of degrading with age. There have also been cases in which air bags failed to inflate. While the concept of "durable life" has been adopted for flares kept in cars or rockets, it has not been applied to air bags, a volatile part contained in cars all over the world. I firmly believe it is time for the auto industry as a whole to consider creating a mechanism for periodically recovering or replacing air bags by establishing a durable life for them.
Q: Some experts say that doing so would be difficult because the U.S. and many other countries do not have automobile safety inspection systems.
A: If [air bags] were designed to enable easy periodic changes or were computer-controlled, then issuing rules for replacing them after a set period of time would be possible. True, replacing the parts would require a certain amount of expertise, but I hope to see opportunities for transport authorities, automakers and parts suppliers to discuss creating such a mechanism without being bound by past interests and constraints.
Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Masaaki Kudo