Takata Non Grata: GM Recall Actions Shine By Comparison – Forbes

Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Takata air-bag imbroglio is making General Motors’ handling of its own air-bag problem look especially good by comparison.

While Takata management, the U.S. car-safety regime and some of GM’s largest rivals have been grossly mishandling the problem of air-bag shrapnel, GM seems to have turned the corner on its own safety-recall mess — and largely because of how CEO Mary Barra has conducted herself and the company.

The Takata terror looks worse by the day as the Japanese mega-supplier, automakers and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration deal unevenly and slowly with recall and safety campaigns meant to corral 7.8 million older cars with air bags that can explode with too much force during a crash and spray drivers and passengers with metal and plastic debris that amounts to shrapnel.

Most recently, AutoNation, America’s largest auto retailer, halted sales of any of the cars in question as CEO Michael Jackson blasted federal regulators for their “incoherent” response to the crisis. Takata air bags so far have been blamed for four deaths and more than 30 injuries in the U.S. Most main brands in the U.S. auto market, including some GM vehicles, have taken actions ranging from issuing recalls to urging owners to leave the front passenger seat empty until air bags can be replaced.

NHTSA has warned owners to get their cars repaired immediately but has resisted issuing a nationwide recall because the danger is most acute in hot, humid areas of the country where air-bag degradation likely is worst. Some automakers also have focused their efforts to get limited supplies of recall parts to most-affected regions. But that doesn’t deal with the fact that cars and consumers scatter everywhere. And NHTSA’s limp actions in the matter have sewn confusion among many car owners around the country.

There’s also the fact that faulty Takata air bags have hardly caught NHTSA unawares. Japanese automakers have been recalling batches of cars carrying Takata air bags, because of this problem, for nearly two years. In March, Toyota and Honda and Nissan recalled a combined three million vehicles because of Takata air bags. But only very recently has NHTSA begun trying to assert overall control of the problem in the United States.

So while Washington bureaucrats and politicians have yet to reach their final judgments about the handling by Barra and GM of the ignition-switch problem that led to at least 29 deaths in the United States, the Takata episode has become another hour that is not NHTSA’s finest. The fact also remains that NHTSA poorly handled allegations of unintended acceleration in Toyota models several years ago, with an approach that helped escalate a dubious accusation into a massive and expensive safety recall imposed on the company. Toyota’s own obstreperous response, of course, only made things worse.

And a congressional committee also has held NHTSA to blame for its own role in not being able to put the pieces together earlier about GM’s ignition-switch problem though there was much evidence to suggest a fundamental flaw.

In fact, the Takata debacle may yet end up forcing the Obama administration to change NHTSA chiefs. Current acting head David Friedman isn’t likely to be renominated for the job, Reuters reported.

Also, compare the reaction of Takata management to that of GM. So far, Takata has only said the company will form a global quality-control committee, and CEO Shigehisa Takada has apologized for “causing … concerns and troubles.” Yet arguably the company should have known about the potential for this kind of disaster as early as 2006, when mishandling of the propellant in its air bags — it’s the only supplier to use ammonium nitrate, Bloomberg reported — caused a series of explosions in its plant in Mexico. Takata’s flaccid response so far seems vastly disproportionate to the seriousness of the flaw in its air bags and to the amount of time it has known about the problem.

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