Millions of vehicles could face recall due to faulty seat belts using parts provided by Takata, the same Japanese supplier responsible for the recall of tens of millions of vehicles due to defective air bag inflators blamed for hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths.
Joyson Safety Systems, the Chinese-owned automotive supplier that took over the remains of Takata after it went bankrupt in 2017, said it is pouring over 20 years of testing data for seat belt webbing and has found inaccuracies suggesting the numbers might have been altered intentionally.
Japanese regulators have begun their own probe and have reportedly advised automakers to prepare for recalls. If the safety of the belts cannot be verified, the impact could be substantial. Takata provided webbing for as much as 40 percent of Japanese auto production and 30 percent of the vehicles produced worldwide.
At one point, Takata was one of the world’s premier suppliers of automotive safety systems. The company’s downfall began in 2014, when it was revealed that its airbag inflators could malfunction as they aged. In such instances, the devices used to fill an air bag could explode with unusual force, sending plastic and metal shrapnel flying into the passenger compartment. It was subsequently revealed that senior managers knew of the problem and tried to cover it up.
The defect has been blamed for hundreds of injuries around the world. Earlier this month, Honda reported what is believed to be the 17th U.S. death linked to the problem. Meanwhile, automakers are continuing to fix millions of vehicles equipped with faulty Takata air bags, with about 70 million defective inflators used in the U.S. alone. According to industry reports, as many as six million vehicles have yet to be repaired, though some may already have been scrapped.
How many vehicles could be subject to recall due to the latest Takata problem is so far unclear. As the air bag scandal unfolded, the company was hammered by lawsuits and criminal investigations that, in the U.S., saw three senior executives charged. Takata in February 2017 agreed to pay a $1 billion fine to settle the U.S. investigation. Four months later it filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. and Japan and most of its assets were taken over by Key Safety Systems.
That Chinese firm, since renamed Joyson Safety Systems, has been looking over data covering tests conducted at the old seat belt plant Takata ran in Hikone, Japan, and has found evidence that the company altered results when it found belt webbing produced there didn’t meet legal standards.
“JSS is currently reviewing available and relevant data over a 20-year period on a test-by-test and product-by-product basis,” Joyson said in a statement.
“The safety of our customers is a top priority and we are working to identify the affected vehicle models, any impact on those vehicles, and any necessary future actions as soon as possible,” Toyota told NBC News in an email.
While Takata’s primary customers were Japanese — Honda its largest — it also supplied numerous foreign manufacturers, from Ferrari to General Motors.
“Honda is aware of the Japan MLIT investigation related to seat belts manufactured by Joyson Safety Systems, and we are currently working to determine the potential impact, if any, on our vehicles,” the third-largest Japanese automaker said in its own statement.
In an emailed statement to NBC News, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is "aware of these reports and is gathering information," according to spokesperson Sean Rushton.
"If NHTSA finds that this belt webbing leads to noncompliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or otherwise represents an unreasonable risk to public safety, the agency will not hesitate to take appropriate action," Rushton said.