Exclusive: Takata investigated defective air bag inflator as early as 2003

Wed Dec 3, 2014 9:05am EST
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By Paul Lienert

DETROIT (Reuters) - As early as 2003, Takata Corp (7312.T: Quote) ran an investigation into an air bag inflator that ruptured in a BMW (BMWG.DE: Quote) vehicle, but concluded the problem was an anomaly, the company said on Tuesday, ahead of a second U.S. congressional hearing on dangerous air bags it supplied.

In addition, technicians employed by the Japanese auto parts supplier in Michigan tested inflators for potential defects in 2004, over a year before Takata has said it first learned of defects that are now linked to five deaths, two people directly involved in Takata's investigation told Reuters.

The disclosure that Takata was looking into problems with its air bag inflators earlier than previously disclosed could open the company to more intense scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers, regulators and prosecutors in an ongoing criminal investigation into a series of recalls that now targets more than 16 million vehicles worldwide.

Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata's chief quality officer, told a Senate committee hearing last month that the company did not begin to look into inflator defects until May 2005 when it learned of a 2004 accident involving a Honda Accord. Shimizu is scheduled to testify later on Wednesday at the second hearing.

Two former Takata employees provided Reuters with details of internal investigations of ruptured inflators: one in January 2004 at a Takata laboratory in Armada, Michigan, and one in June 2004 at a test facility in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The second technical investigation was first reported by The New York Times.

The January 2004 investigation, into issues with driver-side air bag inflators made at a now-shuttered plant in LaGrange, Georgia, was prompted by a 2003 incident of a ruptured inflator in a BMW, one of the former employees said.

Responding to a query from Reuters, Takata confirmed the 2003 BMW incident, which it said took place in Switzerland and was "unrelated" to the 2004 Honda incident.

"Takata and BMW thoroughly investigated that event together in 2003 and concluded that the cause was an overloaded inflator," Takata said in an email to Reuters. "We believe that all testing concerning the 2003 event occurred in 2003 at Takata’s LaGrange, Georgia, facility – not in Michigan."   Continued...

Displays of Takata Corp are pictured at a showroom for vehicles in Tokyo November 5, 2014.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai