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Air bags need expiry dates, not lifetime guarantees

Takata's matron says accidents won't end until the concept of 'durable life' is embraced

Akiko Takada, a senior adviser, says the company should have communicated more with the press and the public.

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 Juichiro Takada was CEO and whose son Shigehisa is currently at the helm, 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 make air bag technology safer.

Takata is regarded as a pioneer, but now it is also known for the accidents. 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) always stressed 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.

Why didn't Takata rein in the problem after the first recall, in 2008? 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.

Why didn't your son, as CEO, speak directly to the U.S. public to address the mounting consumer concerns there? [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.

What can be done to prevent similar problems from happening again? 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 wanted to know 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 distress flares and rockets, it has not been applied to air bags. 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.

That could be difficult given that many countries, including the U.S., do not have automobile safety inspection systems. 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.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Masaaki Kudo

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