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Lack of cooperation compounded Takata air bag disaster

For years, auto industry left supplier to deal with inflator problem itself

TOKYO -- Takata's spectacular downward slide into bankruptcy is a complicated tragedy.

One of the major factors behind the biggest postwar bankruptcy of a Japanese manufacturer seems to be a lack of close cooperation between the supplier and its clients as well as among automakers responding to the complex technological problem.

The air bag maker on Monday filed for bankruptcy protection with the Tokyo District Court -- some 13 years after the saga began with the explosion of an air bag in a Honda car. That came in 2004.

In a statement Honda Motor issued on Friday regarding class action lawsuits over Takata's defective air bags, the carmaker defended itself, saying it was "a victim of Takata's fraud, and not a participant."

But it doesn't seem to be fair to place all blame on Takata.

The 2004 Honda accident involved the bag's inflator, a metal cartridge loaded with solid propellants designed to burn rapidly, create a large volume of gas and inflate the bag.

Honda didn't have the facilities to check the performance of inflators and entrusted the task of identifying the cause of the accident entirely to Takata.

It was not until 2008 that Takata acknowledged errors in the production process could cause inflators to explode with excessive force, spewing shrapnel into passenger compartments. This prompted Honda to recall vehicles over Takata air bags for the first time.

The delayed initial response to the 2004 accident allowed the situation to deteriorate.

In 2009, a fatal accident involving a Takata air bag that was not subject to the recall occurred in the U.S. Subsequent reports of defective products prompted Honda and other automakers to question the supplier's account. In June 2014, the automakers started recalls to find out what was really causing the defects, instead of entrusting Takata with the work.

But neither the automakers nor regulators (in Japan and the U.S.) had sufficient knowledge of inflator propellants. As the efforts to identify the cause dragged on, American news channels began showing video footage showing a horrifying accident that happened in Florida in the autumn of 2014 that involved a Takata air bag. A public outcry against the Japanese supplier arose.

A total of 10 Japanese, U.S. and European automakers decided to start a joint investigation into Takata's defective air bags in January 2015.

In May 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered Takata to recall all air bags that could explode despite the exact cause still being unknown.

Reflecting on how the scandal grew, a senior executive at a Japanese automaker said the industry should have worked closely together in responding to the situation. All affected carmakers should have shared information quickly and sought the help of experts, the executive commented.

It has also been revealed that Takata made a false report to Honda over ruptures during air bag deployment.

Learning from the experience, Honda has decided to demand that its suppliers provide not only test data concerning their products but also information about the ways they collect and analyze data.

The facts concerning Takata's demise offer many important lessons about safety, crisis management and other issues as carmakers go forward in their development of autonomous-driving and electric vehicles. A raft of technological challenges are already presenting themselves.


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