Takata Taps Former U.S. Transport Chiefs in Safety Crisis

Takata Corp said on Tuesday it had recruited three former U.S. transportation secretaries to help the Japanese air bag supplier navigate a growing auto safety crisis.

Takata said it was forming an independent quality panel headed by former White House Chief of Staff and U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner. It also appointed two other former U.S. transportation secretaries, Rodney Slater and Norman Mineta, as special counsel as it struggles to handle a series of recalls.

The quality panel will audit and report on the company's manufacturing processes, which have been called into question after several deaths and serious injuries linked to air bags deploying with too much force and spraying vehicle occupants with metal shrapnel. It will make the report public.

Chief Executive Officer Shigehisa Takada said his company would take "dramatic actions" to increase output of the replacement air bag inflator kits needed as part of the recalls. That includes working with rivals and examining whether their products can be used safely, he said.

"I know we can and must do more," he said in a Tuesday statement.

Takata will look to boost production at its factories in Asia and Europe as well as its Monclova, Mexico, plant. The company said it was increasing monthly output of the replacement kits to at least 450,000 in January from about 350,000 now.

Takata executives would not say whether the company supports calls by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to expand an initial regional recall of driver-side air bags to all 50 states.

Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata's senior vice president for global quality assurance, said in testimony ahead of a U.S. congressional hearing on Wednesday that any broader recall should be phased in to give priority to U.S. regions with higher humidity.

The NHTSA had given Takata until Tuesday to declare that its air bag inflators were defective and issue a national recall. The Nikkei reported on Tuesday that Takata was preparing to comply, but the prepared testimony did not address the issue, and the company did not respond to a request for comment.

Some safety advocates have argued that the recall needs to cover passenger, as well as driver-side air bags, but NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said in separate written testimony that such an approach "is not supported by the data as we now understand it."

Honda North American Executive Vice President Rick Schostek said in his testimony that a national recall would lead to parts shortages, but the Japanese automaker was "seriously considering" it for the driver-side air bag inflators.

Takada also said the company was working with outside scientists, including those who specialize in the explosive propellant materials used, to evaluate cases involving its ruptured air bag inflators.

Toyota North American vice president Abbas Saadat said in his testimony that the automaker wanted "additional assurances about the integrity and quality of Takata's manufacturing processes." Toyota and Honda called on Tuesday for independent industrywide tests of Takata air bag inflators subject to recalls.

Takata has collected more than 20 terabytes of data in response to requests for information from U.S. safety regulators and is producing more than 360,000 pages of documents for them.

(By Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Christian Plumb)