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The chief executive whose company's faulty airbags triggered the largest recall in automotive history broke his silence on Thursday and apologized after months of avoiding the spotlight.
Shigehisa Takata offered his condolences to the families of eight people — including seven Americans — who died when airbags made by his Takata Corp. exploded. More than 100 people were also injured by the faulty product, prompting the recall of nearly 34 million cars from companies including Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda.
“We are obviously considering how we can provide relief for the victims,” Takata, whose grandfather founded the firm, told a press conference. Takata said that setting up a fund was "one idea" but that other ideas were under consideration, adding that "unfortunately, we haven’t reach that point where we can say exactly what that will be."
When asked why it had taken him so long to speak in public, Takata — who stressed he had no plans to resign — said he had believed that his first priority was to make sure the products were safe for their customers.
“I had been in discussions with automakers and regulatory authorities,” he said. “In doing so I realized how I missed several opportunities to speak and for that I apologize.”
His colleague Hiroshi Shimizu, who oversees quality control for the company, said that they believe long periods of exposure to high temperatures, as well as high humidity may have triggered the fatal events.
However, Takata Corp. has yet to reach a conclusion on the exact cause of the explosions, he added.
Years before its airbags were linked to the deaths, Takata stopped safety audits of airbag problems because the probe cost too much, a Congressional report revealed on Tuesday.
"Global safety audits had stopped for financial reasons for last 2 years," a top executive at the Japan-based company wrote in an April 2011 email.
The same year that the audits stopped, a supervisor at a Takata plant in Mexico and an engineer exchanged emails about improper welds on airbag inflators that might possibly result in injuries to passengers.
"We cannot be faced with findings / defects of this sort and NOT do ANYTHING," the supervisor wrote in the email. "A part that is not welded = one life less, which shows we are not fulfilling the mission."
The emails were revealed in a staff report from Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee that was released prior to Takata executives' appearance before the committee.
They were among 13,000 documents obtained in preparation for the hearing, which concerned both Takata's airbag problem and how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) responded.
The report showed that Takata has a history of putting costs over safety, said committee members.
"The more evidence we see, the more it paints a troubling picture of a manufacturer that lacked concern," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ranking minority member of the committee.
In response to the Congressional report, Takata issued a statement to NBC saying:
“The report contains a number of inaccuracies based largely on old media articles that Takata has previously refuted, and emails that are taken out of context and characterized in ways that creates a false impression. For example, the global audits referenced in the emails relate to the safe handling by employees of pyrotechnic materials – they were not, as the report implies, related to product quality or safety. Takata conducts regular reviews of product quality and safety at Moses Lake and Monclova, and at no time were those halted. As an additional layer of quality assurance, Takata has convened an independent Quality Assurance Panel to conduct a comprehensive review to ensure Takata's current manufacturing procedures meet best practices. We are committed to proper manufacturing practices and to the safety of our employees and the driving public.”
Henry Austin reported from London.