When a slew of automakers announced last fall that they would no longer use airbag inflators from Takata, at least one cited concerns that the company had “misrepresented or manipulated test data.” Recently unearthed emails from engineers and others within the Japanese auto parts maker suggest those alleged deceptions were blatant and widely known.
The New York Times reports that the emails, recently released as part of a personal injury lawsuit against Takata, involve open exchanges between Takata employees in Japan and the U.S. related to manipulating data for parts that tested differently.
The emails referred to the testing of airbag inflators, which contain the propellant ammonium nitrate, that can explode with enough force to shoot shrapnel at passengers and drivers.
So far, the airbags have been linked to eight deaths in the U.S. and nine worldwide.
The emails point to concern about tests conducted at an elevated temperature. Together with moisture, high temperatures are known to make ammonium nitrate more volatile. Investigators have been looking into whether or not the propellant is the root cause of the airbag ruptures.
One email exchange from July 2006 involves an airbag engineer proclaiming “Happy Manipulating!!!,” supposedly in reference to airbag test results. In another correspondence he suggested that the recipient change the colors or lines in a graphic “to divert attention” from the test results and to “try to dress it up.”
Takata tells the New York Times that the email exchanges concerned only formatting of data and not safety information related to any of the millions of recalled airbags.
In response to the July 2006 email, a colleague tells the engineer, “If you think I’m going to manipulate, you really should try and get to know me better. I would be willing to deviate from running slightly high” in tests at higher temperatures.
The engineer then writes, “Hey, I manipulated,” explaining that the objective was to help disguise that some of the inflators performed differently from others.
“Nothing wrong with that,” the email reads. “All the data is there. Every piece,” he added, suggesting they use “thick and thin lines to try and dress it up, or changing colors to divert attention.”
While the NYT reports that Takata hasn’t disputed assertions that it manipulated test data in the past, the company maintains that none of that information concerned recalled airbags.
“[The engineer] is referring to the formatting of a presentation, not to changing data, and the emails in question are completely unrelated to the current airbag inflator recalls,” the statement said. “In fact, as has previously been reported, [the engineer] played a significant role in raising concerns about the past testing data issues referenced in the settlement with NHTSA in early November — issues that will not be tolerated or repeated.”
A former General Motors engineer, who now works as a safety consultant in litigation involving airbag issues, tells the NYT that the emails between Takata employees suggests the parts being tested weren’t consistent.
“Clearly they are saying the data is not good, but if they can manipulate it, they can make it at least appear to be good data,” says Chris Caruso, whose work currently involves some Takata litigation. “This is really bad.”
In November, Honda, which has so far been linked to all the Takata-related deaths, was the first carmaker to ditch the volatile airbags, noting that it was “deeply troubled” by evidence that suggested Takata “misrepresented and manipulated test data for certain airbag inflators.”
A spokesperson for Honda declined to comment specifically on the documents, but reiterated that it is “aware of evidence that suggests Takata misrepresented and manipulated test data.”
Takata Emails Show Brash Exchanges About Data Tampering [The New York Times]