Honda quietly asked Takata for new airbags in 2009, didn't notify NHTSA [Updated]

March 28, 2016

Updated with a statement from Honda. See below.

Honda has taken lots of heat over the past couple of years because of its close relationship with Takata.

First and foremost, Honda has suffered from guilt by association with the Japanese supplier--a supplier that had until recently insisted that its airbags were perfectly safe and refused to cooperate with a federal safety probe. Beyond that, in 2014 we learned that Honda failed to report more than 1,700 death and injury claims linked to Takata's devices.

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Unfortunately, the heat on Honda isn't letting up just yet.

Newly released documents reveal that Honda worked with Takata to replace the supplier's fatally flawed airbags long before the injuries and deaths they caused became front page news. Worse, Honda did so without informing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that anything was wrong.

The news comes from a number of internal Honda memos and presentations dating to 2009. By August of that year, Takata's airbags had been linked to at least one death and four injuries, and although no one was yet sure what might've caused the devices to explode (spoiler alert: ammonium nitrate), Honda wanted them fixed. 

That's not to say that the automaker anticipated recalling 8.5 million vehicles to replace the airbags, as it has now done. In 2009, Honda simply asked Takata to improve the devices' inflators to prevent accidents and deaths in the future.

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Honda has confirmed the authenticity of the memos and presentations to Reuters. The company has also confirmed that it did not notify NHTSA of its request to Takata.

What does this mean for Honda and Takata?

Until recently, Honda was Takata's biggest client. That close relationship may have facilitated an atmosphere that allowed the two companies to work together in ways that...well, weren't entirely ethical.

It's true that Honda may not have been legally required to notify NHTSA of its 2009 request for a redesign of Takata's airbags. However, in light of numerous other allegations of the two companies working together to downplay the devices' dangers, this new revelation won't win Honda many friends.

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Nor is it likely to play well in front of judges, as more than 100 federal lawsuits and scores of state suits work their way through courtrooms from coast to coast. Up 'til now, much of the blame for the Takata airbag fiasco has rested on Takata's shoulders, but attention could shift to Honda in light of this new evidence.

The good news--if there is any--is that Honda's clandestine work with Takata may have resulted in better airbags. Of the 90+ U.S. injuries and nine deaths (eight of which occurred in Honda vehicles) linked to the devices, none were caused by Takata's redesigned airbags, which rolled out in late 2010.

Update: Honda has issued the following statement regarding the Takata airbag redesign:

"Honda categorically rejects the assertion that a redesigned airbag inflator component is evidence that the prior inflator design contained a safety defect.  As technology evolves, Honda and other automakers regularly work with suppliers to make design changes.

"It was Honda's understanding at the time that all inflator ruptures were due to Takata manufacturing errors associated with a previous inflator design. Thus, Honda’s request to Takata to incorporate a change into a new airbag inflator design, was prudent on our part. Importantly, we are aware of no customers experiencing rupture events with the new inflator design.

"Regarding Honda’s reporting obligations, Honda does have an obligation to report safety defects to NHTSA, and we fully comply with this requirement. However, it is not NHTSA's expectation, nor the industry practice, that automakers will automatically report every new inflator design to NHTSA."

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