Japanese airbag supplier Takata faces a global backlash not just because of their defective exploding airbags, but because they knew about the problem for years. Now, a a New York Times report claims Takata officials acted swiftly to cover up the problem after discovering it in secret testing.

The must-read report from the Times says that starting in 2004 in Michigan, Takata began performing secret tests after work hours on 50 airbags it retrieved from scrapyards. The supplier found that inflaters in two of the airbags cracked during their tests, so they began gathering data for a recall.

Instead, Takata higher-ups ordered testing to stop and all data, including video and computer backups, to be destroyed, the newspaper reports.

All that testing was done four years before Takata previously claimed they started testing the defective airbags. The earlier tests were disclosed by former Takata employees who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The former Takata employees, who between them had four decades of experience at the company, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of continuing ties to Takata. They said they were speaking up because of concerns that their former employer was not being forthright about the defective airbags.

"All the testing was hush-hush," one former employee said. "Then one day, it was, 'Pack it all up, shut the whole thing down.' It was not standard procedure."

In the faulty airbags, the explosive devices within can burn more aggressively than they should, causing the inflater to burst and sending pieces of metal flying through the airbag fabric. This could potentially maim or kill the car's occupant. Today, the airbags have been linked to at least four deaths and more than 30 injuries.

Advertisement

Takata has said in its regulatory filings that it fixed its manufacturing and quality control problems with its airbags back in the early 2000s. Clearly, this wasn't the case:

The Times reviewed internal Takata documents, emails, photos, videos and regulatory filings. Emails show workers raising concerns that airbag units were being delivered to automakers wet or damaged because of transportation mishaps. Closed-circuit television footage shows forklifts dropping stacks of the airbag units.

The dropped airbags were not always properly inspected for damage, especially in the early 2000s, according to the former quality-control managers who said they later pushed for stricter controls at the facility. The two spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

There's a lot more in the story, including this gem: Takata "put a lot of pressure and incentive on us to never miss a shipment," said one of the former managers. "I'd argue, 'what if my daughter bought the car with the bad airbag?' But the plant would tell us, 'Just ship it.'"