Takata Corporation, the Japanese airbag manufacturer at the center of a 17-million-vehicle worldwide recall for airbags that may shoot deadly metal debris in an accident, has always maintained that it first discovered the problem in 2008. But a New York Times report published late Thursday says the company knew about the defective airbags all the way back in 2004—and allegedly ordered employees to destroy test data confirming the issue.
The Times spoke with two former Takata employees on the condition of anonymity. The sources state that Takata was alerted to an airbag that fired metal debris at a driver in an accident in Alabama in 2004. In response, the informants claim, Takata conducted secret tests on 50 airbags obtained from junkyards, discovering cracked steel inflators in two of the airbags, a condition that can lead to the release of metal shrapnel when the airbags deploy in an accident. Engineers were so startled by the results that they began planning fixes to prepare for a recall. But the sources report that Takata executives ordered lab technicians to delete the testing data, erase video footage, and dispose of the airbag components used in the testing.
“All the testing was hush-hush,” one of the former employees told the Times. “Then one day, it was ‘pack it all up, shut the whole thing down.’ It was not standard procedure.” It wasn’t until four years later that Takata officially told regulators it had begun testing for problems with its airbags. The tests led to the first recall for the problem in November 2008.
The problem has to do with the inflator module, a steel canister containing a chemical propellant that rapidly inflates the airbag in a collision. Structural weaknesses in the inflators can cause the steel casing to rupture when the airbag deploys, sending metallic pieces exploding toward a driver or passengers. The problem is blamed for at least four deaths and 139 injuries, 37 of which involve airbags that shot metal or chemicals at passengers, the Times reports.
- Massive Takata Airbag Recall: Everything You Need to Know
- Takata Recall Update: Airbags Being Disabled and Labeled “Do Not Sit Here”
- Honda and Takata Allegedly Knew About Exploding Airbags Years Before Recall
A Takata spokesperson declined to comment to the Times on the issue.
The most recent death involving a Takata airbag occurred in Los Angeles last year, when the driver of a 2002 Acura TL was injured so badly by metallic shrapnel that investigators originally thought the death was a homicide.
Currently, nearly 8 million cars in the U.S. have been recalled in response to the airbag problem. Eleven carmakers are involved. Find a full list of affected vehicles at NHTSA’s website and on our main page for the Takata recall situation.