Takata, Take Two

The big take-aways from the second round of Congressional hearings on Takata airbag inflator ruptures and recalls were:

  • No root causes have been definitively identified and may never be definitively identified.
  • Takata is going to cut back on its production of ammonium nitrate – one of several potential root causes of inflator explosions. There was a lot of focus on this aspect of the issue – maybe it’s too hard to wrap our heads around the idea that often defect issues result from a confluence of root causes? (Manufacturing, materials and design)
  • That driver’s side replacement inflator you dutifully went to the dealership to get in a previous recall has the same damn problem, so you are going back again whenever supplies are available. But don’t worry it will take another seven years for your newish inflator to go bad. Passengers, take cover. Free advice from Congress to consumer: Check weekly with your local dealership!

Beyond that, the afternoon was largely another episode of Safety Accountability Theater. We have to hand it to NHTSA’s new administrator. Mark Rosekind was smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy, thanking every committee member for asking their question, even as they murdered his last name and the name of his agency. He showed a solid command of the details, even signified that regional recalls are dead, and promised decisive action.  NHTSA will, for the first time in its history, be coordinating a massive, national 11-automaker, 34 million vehicle recall. Rosekind also made a strong pitch for more funding, given the agency’s monumental task, with too few people and an insufficient budget that, adjusted for inflation, is 23 percent lower than it was 10 years ago.

The Democrats on the committee took the occasion as an opportunity to promote Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-ILL) and Frank Pallone’s (D-NJ) The Vehicle Safety Improvement Act, which would close the loophole that allows rental car companies and used car dealers from putting unremedied recalled vehicles back in the marketplace, kill the whole regional recall strategy of which automakers are so fond, give consumers easier access to more complete safety information and require the disclosure of serious injuries and fatalities.

Takata Executive Vice President Kevin Kennedy sustained multiple lacerations during the hearing by falling on his sword. He did, however, defend its propellant chemical and partly blamed the automakers for failing to write design specs that would have forced them to make safer inflators.

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers President Mitch Bainwol countered with: we just specify performance. The safety part’s up to you. By the by, Takata, where are your ISO 12097-3 tests requiring failure in a controlled manner?

We also heard a little of the consumers-must-do-their-part shtick – a newly popular lament from the manufacturers and the regulators. And consumers do need to take recalls seriously.  What’s missing from the narrative is a large chunk of the reality which is very relevant to the Takata airbag inflator recalls, but certainly holds true for others. For a long time, NHTSA did next to nothing to ensure that recall remedy rates were adequate – there are no benchmarks for recall success. NHTSA did not keep very good track of how recalls were progressing – it took years for them to notice and take action against manufacturers with poor records – if at all.

The regulations do not require manufacturers to do much more than send a first-class letter informing consumers of a defect. They don’t even have to tell the consumer if the defect has caused injuries and fatalities – the safety risks are expressed as hypotheticals. In this age of social media and connectivity, manufacturers have multiple ways to reach consumers – if they want to, and they can give their customers a more straightforward accounting of the defect – if they want to.

It’s been several years since Congress first considered bills to make used car companies and rental companies get the recalled vehicles in their fleets remedied. That loophole remains open for business.  (Support for the issue appears to be gaining some momentum.)

So nobody in charge of recall policy, enforcement or practice has felt much urgency to get recalled vehicles repaired. Add in supply chain issues in which the part you supposedly desperately need isn’t available for months or a year, and if consumers have a bad case of recall apathy, we certainly know who they caught it from.

Bottom line – failure has many fathers – and consumers are not among them: NHTSA for years of lax defect and recall enforcement, and the automakers — who apparently have had no mechanism for or a desire to enforce quality control on their suppliers –and Takata for hiding the extent of problems and issuing rolling recalls.