Exlusive: Honda and Takata's stealth airbag fix

Tue Mar 29, 2016 4:55pm EDT
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((This version of the March 24 story corrects total number of deaths to eight, instead of nine, in paragraph 23 and corrects deaths since late 2010 to six, instead of seven, in paragraph 24.)

By Paul Lienert and Jessica Dye

DETROIT (Reuters) - In August of 2009, after ruptured airbag inflators in Honda vehicles were linked to least four injuries and a death, the automaker quietly requested a design change and did not notify U.S. regulators, Honda confirmed in response to inquiries from Reuters.

Honda Motor Co(7267.T: Quote) asked supplier Takata Corp(7312.T: Quote) to produce a “fail-safe” airbag inflator, according to Takata presentations and internal memos reviewed by Reuters.

The previously undisclosed redesign could make Honda and Takata more vulnerable in more than 100 pending federal lawsuits and dozens more state suits, according to several legal experts and an attorney suing the companies. The request shows that Honda understood the safety risks posed by the inflators long before it started expanding recalls by the millions in 2014, the attorneys and law professors said.

U.S. law requires automakers to disclose safety risks and actions to prevent them to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But Honda spokesman Chris Martin said the redesign did not require notice to regulators because the safety risk involved Takata manufacturing errors rather than a specific design defect.

Honda requested the redesign to “protect against the possibility of future manufacturing errors – it was not an acknowledgement of a larger design flaw in the inflators,” Martin wrote.

Honda started installing the modified inflators in some, but not all, vehicles in 2011 and continues to do so today, Martin said. Honda expanded recalls as it became aware of more defects, he said.

The fail-safe modification - outlined in Takata technical documents and internal presentations between 2009 and 2011 and confirmed by Honda - added vents in the inflator to channel pressure from an explosion away from a driver’s neck and torso.   Continued...

Technician Edward Bonilla holds a recalled Takata airbag inflator after he removed it from a Honda Pilot at the AutoNation Honda dealership service department in Miami, Florida in this June 25, 2015, file photo. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/Files