By on December 3, 2015

dbpix-airbag-tmagArticle

I wouldn’t be surprised if every morning in Tokyo executives at Takata hope that more revelations come out concerning Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheating scandal so as to push any revelations about their own exploding airbag scandal down the page.

Last week, Honda accused Takata of “misrepresented and manipulated test data” in explaining why they decided to stop using Takata as a supplier.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal, based on internal documents discovered as a result of lawsuits, reported that Takata engineers in the United States had expressed reservations about fudged test results going to Honda starting in 2000.

Defective airbags made by Takata have been associated with over 100 injuries and eight deaths. The propellant Takata currently uses can be unstable if not handled properly and inflators have exploded, sending shrapnel into drivers and passengers. More than 19 million vehicles have been recalled just in the U.S. with millions more around the globe.

The Takata memos indicate that its engineers in the U.S. had expressing concerns that their colleagues in the home office in Japan were both altering results and burying failures from validation tests. One memo from a U.S.-based Takata engineer talked of “prettying up” data that went contrary to the results of his own team, saying that the manipulation “has gone beyond all reasonable bounds and now most likely constitutes fraud.”

Takata offered multiple explanations, saying that the internal memos the Journal exposed either don’t have anything to do with their exploding airbags, related to a problem with the airbag inflator that was resolved, or related to airbag inflators that never reached production. Takata did tell the WSJ that there was indeed situations where customer validation reports had included, “selective, incomplete or inaccurate data.” They apologized, blaming the problem on employees trying to meet production deadlines.

In recent years, there have been four big recall related scandals in the automotive industry: Toyota’s alleged unintended acceleration problem; General Motors’ ignition switches that shut off cars, resulting in collisions bereft of airbag protection; Volkswagen’s diesels that ran special software when being emissions tested; and, the exploding Takata airbags. All involve either risk to consumers or potential harm to the environment with attendant health issues. It seems to me that of the four scandals, the Takata airbag matter has, if not quite gone under the radar, gotten relatively less attention from consumers and the general public. Maybe that’s because the other three involve big, famous car companies rather than a relatively obscure supplier.

That seems peculiar to me in light of the fact that the Takata issue affects so many more car owners, affecting cars from a variety of manufacturers. Add the fact that it involves explosions and shrapnel, sure to get people’s attention. I have no personal taste for gore, but recognize that it generates publicity. In choosing a photo to illustrate this post, I opted not to use photos of blood spattered airbags I was able to find at law firms’ websites. Despite the potential for publicity, though, both car enthusiasts and the general public seem to be going “meh” at the Takata airbag story.

How would you rank the recent automotive scandals in terms of importance, possible harm to the public and consumers, and self-inflicted harm to the companies involved?

Photo credit: NHTSA

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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38 Comments on “Ignition Switches, Gas Pedals, Emissions Cheating & Exploding Airbags. Which is Most Scandalous?...”


  • avatar
    zip89105

    As a Toyota owner, I’d say gas pedals, but I’m sure GM owners feel otherwise. The airbag issue I blame on the feds for knowing about a problem and doing nothing, for years. Emissions I could care less about as I could drink less beer, and eat less beans and onions to lower emissions all by myself.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      For me, the gas pedals would be a close second, behind the air bags. If I’m in a life threatening crash, the last thing I’d want is a device intended to save me instead delivering the coupe de gracie.

      OTOH, I remember the same gas pedal issue in Audi years before, in which people were literally stomping on the wrong pedal. I suspect more than a few Toyota incidents were the result of a panic reaction.

      As for the GM ignition switch, it was a borderline spec and the deaths/injuries were relatively few compared to the many millions of cars that were fitted with them and had no problems. That’s small comfort if you or a loved one was one of the victims, and there’s no excuse for not issuing a recall as soon as the problem was identified.

      Of the four, emissions cheating was the least of them. Sure, people will say the pollution will kill too, just more slowly, but I grew up in the ’50s when car exhaust and the air were filthy. You have no idea how much cleaner the air is now, compared to the ’50s-’60s. Go to a parade of classics of that era and you’ll notice the stench as they go by.

    • 0 avatar
      Frylock350

      I’m an (unaffected by the switch debable) GM owner and I’m far more concerned about VW’s behavior than GM’s or Toyota’s. Toyota and GM are both bad parts and/or electronics and were not maliciously designed. I think if them as like a bad security hole in Windows, a problem for sure, but one that’s accidental. VW’s emissions scandal is like Microsoft shipping Windows with viruses and malware.

      Also, you should care about emissions a little bit; EPA emissions laws do produce cleaner air. I personally use E85, a nearly carbon neutral renewable fuel (damn you 15% gasoline!). I would use E100 if it were available. I’m not a zealot about it, but practical emissions reduction is a good idea. I personally like biofuels because they also promote the planting of more green stuff which is never a bad thing. If only the US could produce it from something better than corn…

      Additionally please drink that beer! The plants its made from absorb C02.

      Also sidetrack here in regards to E100. Could an ignition system be designed that uses another atomized fuel in small quantities to assist in starting the vehicle solve E100’s cold start issues? This fuel could be stored in a tiny tank similar to urea for diesel vehicles and used only when ambient temp is under 40 degrees.

      • 0 avatar
        DeadWeight

        GM’s & Takata’s actions/inactions were high on the list of proximate causes that directly killed people (over 140 that are merely known of in GM’s case), and led to multiples more injuries (many serious ones).

        High-ranking executives at General Motors & Takata should be in jail right now for manslaughter, in addition of a plethora of other crimes. Yet, they sit free.

        And that ethanol derived from corn you so dearly love is a massively inefficient, boondoggle & absolute taxpayer-subsidized gimormous gift to the big Agricultural firms.

        Turning high water and fertilizer consuming/intense food crops, such as corn, into fuel (rather than low water and fertilizer intense vegetation such as sugar cane that literally grows wild in every open space in South America) into fuel for ICE vehicles is one of the most idiotic policies ever undertaken.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ve never quite understood why Michigan hasn’t promoted ethanol made from sugar beets and the waste made from turning those beets into refined sugar. Former Gov. Granholm promoted corn ethanol (we have a lot of corn farmers here), but Michigan is the leading producer of sugar beets and the energy in to out ratio of making ethanol from sugar beets is a lot better at 1:2 than corn at 1:1.3.

          Ethanol in Brazil makes sense because sugar cane’s energy ratio is 1:8. Corn ethanol is a boondoggle, not a solution to our energy needs.

        • 0 avatar
          Frylock350

          @DW,

          Did you miss the part where I said “If only the US could produce it from something better than corn…”? I am aware of the problems of making ethanol from corn, but I still support ethanol’s use as fuel. I would highly prefer it to be made from something better suited for the task.

          The internet you are using to post started life as a taxpayer-subsidized project. Sometimes government subsidy and/or is necessary to spur progress.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      “The airbag issue I blame on the feds for knowing about a problem and doing nothing, for years.”

      You don’t blame Takata for manufacturing the defective airbags and then covering it up?

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Worse than covering it up – 2 weeks ago a story ran that they falsified test data including knowing in their tests over a decade ago that they had more bag failures than specifications allowed. They didn’t just ignore the data, the changed it.

        I agree with the TTAC author, Takata is the worst of the 4 and has largely gotten a free pass.

  • avatar
    Frylock350

    The most scandalous? Easily VW’s emissions issue. Toyota and GM didn’t design the vehicles to have a problem on purpose and didn’t design them to subvert the law. VW did exactly this.

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    Most scandalous?

    How about the fact that our civilization pissed away a centuries-long, hard-won battle for the liberty of the common man in the name of Safety, and now have a monster State determined to crusade about “solving problems.”

    We are all in danger now.

  • avatar
    wmba

    One of these scandals is not like the others – the VW one. It affects every single diesel vehicle from 2009 on.

    Accelerator pedals that may or may not stick, upwards of 99% did not; ignition switches that might or might not turn themselves off depending on a wad of other keys on the ring; airbags that might or might not blow up and eject shrapnel, upwards of 99% have not.

    The public votes with its version of a crap shoot, which is to say in the Toyota and Takata cases, a lot of people didn’t even bother getting around to getting the free fix. Honda details on its web site that even people contacted by phone more than once cannot get off their butts long enough to put the car into service for new free airbags. I imagine that a great many of the GM owners haven’t bothered to get a new ignition switch, but cannot even hazard a guess as to percentage. It’s human nature for an individual to gamble when nothing seems to be wrong to them, uninformed as they may be.

    But the VW diesel is wrong 100% of the time, and money is involved one way or another so far as the owner is concerned. The other cases have more intangibles to an owner without much imagination.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Takata.

    Cheating and coverups related to a safety device = Very Bad.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      And the Takata issue is not ignored by the people I know. I hear more concern about explosive airbags than defective ignition switches, both because bags are hidden mysteries that you can’t evaluate yourself (like a switch), and because they’re found in so many vehicles. People I know, my wife included, won’t consider any Japanese cars because they associate Takata with Japanese makes.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    One case involves fraud, and the other three involve incompetence covered-up by fraud. I rate them all equally, but I have a little more respect for VW. It’s hard for me to respect incompetence.

  • avatar
    PenguinBoy

    My rankings, starting with the most scandalous:

    1) VW Emissions – Malicious intent.
    2) Takata Airbags – Poorly handled mistake, there is absolutely no advance warning of the defect, and if you are in one of the affected cars and a bad airbag pops, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
    3) Toyota Gas Pedals / GM Ignition Keys (tied) – Poorly handled mistake, but someone that thinks quickly could possibly shift the car into neutral or turn the ignition back on when the problem occurs.

  • avatar
    tylanner

    The VW emissions is the abominable scandal among them but the others are more shocking and terrible in their immediate impact.

    The VW scandal may just be the climax of a bubbling public outrage towards the auto industry.

  • avatar
    46and2

    The biggest scandal of them all is the one where there are not former auto company employees, who were making at least a million dollars a year, sentenced to break big rocks into smaller rocks for the rest of their freaking lives. White collar murder? Here’s your golden parachute!

  • avatar
    Quentin

    Having just been in a small overlap head on collision*, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more scandal about Ford putting the crash bars on the version of the truck that would get crash tested but not the ones that wouldn’t get crash tested. That’s pretty darn devious.

    Takada first due to being devious and directly related to safety. VW gets second because it was devious an only indirectly related to safety.

    * Guy came left of center on Sunday and basically mimicked the small overlap test other than it was another car rather than a solid object.

  • avatar
    matador

    Here’s what I’d say:

    1. Takata Airbag Shrapnel
    2. Volkswagen Emissions Software
    3. General Motors Ignition Switches
    4. Toyota Acceleration

    The executives at Takata are guilty of murder. Volkswagen has completely torpedoed their own ship, but they at least haven’t killed anyone (Directly- climate change results can be disputed indefinitely). General Motors didn’t have as severe of an issue as Takata, but they sure screwed up.

    For Toyota, see Audi, c. 1987

  • avatar
    tubacity

    My number one is Takata Airbag IED.
    Lying, death, cover up, number of cars affected, no warning, owner can do nothing other than get it replaced.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    1) Takata air bags – the story that they knowingly and willfully doctored results of tests, including failed airbags got almost no coverage 2 weeks ago. I’ve wrote this many times, if you’re an owner of a Takata impacted vehicle you have zero recourse to protect yourself from the 1% to 2% chance (depending on make/model) that you have a Claymore mine in your dashboard. Your only recourse is to park the vehicle. Also by the nature of a violent car crash, it may be hard to determine if the exploding airbag killed you, or the crash killed you without a thorough autopsy and evaluation. We’ll never really know the real body count here. Also why in first place? Because Takata stonewalled the investigations every step of the way for literally a decade.

    2) VW exhaust scandal – because of two reasons – this wasn’t incompetence – it was willful and directed. It went on from 2009-2016 and has violated the emissions standards of countries around the world, from strict (US) to the so so like India. It crossed every make within their portfolio and there is growing evidence this was known, and condoned at high levels. Why also at number two? Because VW didn’t just rip the bandaid off and come clean with a list of impacted vehicles when they got caught, and have dragged their feet globally. We likely still don’t know how deep this rabbit hole goes.

    3) GM ignition switches – willful incompetence is the only reason why GM isn’t on the number two spot here ahead of VW. Oh I know, a couple are going to reply, “but people died and that isn’t equivalent!” Yes, but GM didn’t go, “hey I have an idea, lets kill our customers by having out of spec ignition switches in our cars, we’ll make more profit!” What happened was willful incompetence, what happened at VW was wilfull mindful action – hence why in the United States (since some will bring up moral equivalency) we have laws like involuntary manslaughter versus murder. One means there wasn’t intent, but the stupidity involved would mean that a reasonable person could see the outcome. That is where GM falls in this one – but only by a hair. So why is GM lower than Takata? Because if I’m an owner I have multiple recourse. If I just have my ignition key and not all the other crap hanging off of it – problem solved. If my car loses power it is somewhat incumbent on me as a driver to know how to steer and brake under reduced power. People lose power in cars every day and steer and brake with reduced power to a safe stop. In the case of VW I have no recourse until my car is fixed by recall, other than park it. For a Takata equipped car I have no recourse but to park it until I’m fixed by recall, and some records indicate that if I get a Takata replacement airbag, it might still be a Claymore mine (as has happened on some Honda models). Also why number three? Because when GM got caught they managed the crisis a heck of a lot better than Takata and VW above. They came clean, setup a victims fund on their own, settled with 124 parties without going to court, and didn’t play the, “well that was old GM that is bankrupt problem we are new GM and not it,” which they could have legally. The also compensated without questions a number of parties that had the cases gone to court, would have likely gotten nothing. One party compensated including a suicide by car who left a note and all. It’s clear why they did it – make the story go away, and I’m sure Barra has Winterkorn on her Christmas list. ;-)

    4) Toyota – surprise! Oh I know one of two of you expected this to be number 1, 2, and 3 on my list. This one is complicated. Jack wrote an outstanding piece when the final settlement came in that shows that Toyota was anything but an innocent victim subject to a witch hunt attempting to prop up a sagging US auto industry (do a search). The real problem was gas pedals which didn’t provide enough clearances with some accessory Toyota floor mats, which was made worse if drivers put the accessory floor mats over the standard/carpeted ones. It could also be a problem with Toyota vehicles that didn’t have floor mat anchors, and the mat moved on its own, entrapping the pedal. Hey, here is a ziptie, problem solved. Toyota knew about it, and negotiated a reduced recall with NHTSA in 2007 – a point made in a somewhat infamous PPT deck where they highlighted internally that reducing the recall scope saved Toyota $100 million USD. In hindsight they would have been better off doing the full floor mat recall like they did for the rest of the world back in 2007. The problem is made even more complicated by incidents of brake/gas pedal confusion that blanketed the news, Toyota’s proprietary black boxes that they weren’t forthcoming with data with until the story was long out of control, and then the CTS gas pedal issue (the company not the car) that clouded the issue further (and had nothing to do with the real problem – it was just an ill-timed additional recall). Toyota did know they had a problem with tolerances and floor mats, and worked specifically in the US to minimize the recall. The NHTSA was in agreement with those changes, but alas that was under a different administration that also gave GM a hall pass when the ignition switch issue first came up, and gave Honda a hall pass when the air bag issues first came up. In 2009 a new sheriff came into town — and well go with what you want there. Toyota’s failure was caused in part by a culture of now allowing more autonomy within their global divisions, and an executive culture of, “don’t bring me no bad news,” It was less willful incompetence, and I don’t believe willful action (as in Takata and VW) as an organization that didn’t see the growing severity of a problem and ignored it. Toyota also didn’t help its cause by attacking victims (real or alleged) including having smear campaigns in some cases going to court. Their crisis management is no where near as bad as VW, but had they been more GM and ripped the bandaid right off, they might not even be on this list at all.

    Anyway, that’s where I put them.

    • 0 avatar
      Eiriksmal

      I mean, I lump Takata, GM, and Toyota together in willfully shipping dangerous products. It was never only mats slipping onto accelerator pedals, the ECU was proven to (potentially) exhibit a number of nasty behaviors such as killing off “watchdog” processes that rigorously monitor subsystems for failures and, indeed, sending an accelerate signal to the throttle until

      http://www.safetyresearch.net/blog/articles/toyota-unintended-acceleration-and-big-bowl-%E2%80%9Cspaghetti%E2%80%9D-code

      As a software engineer, I find that writeup and accompanying slideshows horrifying. I can’t imagine having to work on that sordid code or how they were okay shipping a product that violates so many known programming best practices that powers 1.5-ton weapons.

      Anecdotally, I have a friend whose father was a software engineer for GM for ages, then worked for Bose’s suspension efforts back in the day before picking up work as an expert witness in accidents, similar to the author of that SafetyResearch post. (In fact, now that I’ve scanned the slides for that trial, I’m pretty confident he’s the dude responsible for the graphs showing the actual unintended acceleration at work.) He was a dyed-in-the-wool GM man, but moved into BMWs when he realized there’s nothing quite like an M3 in their lineup. Though his kids drive a variety of makes, he vigorously campaigns against their owning Toyotas. Why? The same reasons outlined in that article. The code he’s reviewed with Japanese translators, no taking in electronics, no taking out notes, etc., etc. is seriously troubling, there’s no telling what could go wrong _without hardware even failing_. He has no such beef against the other companies he’s testified against.

      http://www.safetyresearch.net/Library/BarrSlides_FINAL_SCRUBBED.pdf

      Very troubling stuff. I wish we knew more, but we never will because of DMCA and blah, blah, blah.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I’m surprised at how high the Volkswagen scandal is rated by so many here. You all must think screwing with government regulators is a bad thing. You must be assuming the bureaucrats doing the regulating are competent and have set reasonable, effective standards and logical testing procedures. Having spent a career in government and having seen how the internal politics works, that’s the LAST thing I would assume.

    As for the pollution angle, you can say all you want about the evils of added pollution, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the lethality of the other examples. We have the cleanest air in decades, and a little bit of added CO2 is easily scrubbed by natural forces, mostly absorbed by plants. There’s a satellite photo essay somewhere on the ‘net, labeled something like the ‘greening’ of the planet, caused by the higher levels of CO2.

    Google pictures of Philadelphia city hall in the 1940’s-’50s, when the main fuel for heating in much of the north was coal. The top half of the tower was black with coal soot, just like other cities up to the 1950s, when coal burning was outlawed. The added CO2 emissions are inconsequential compared to the particulates and toxic compounds produced by burning raw coal.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      “I’m surprised at how high the Volkswagen scandal is rated by so many here. ”

      Only by the alarmists with their own global-warming agenda. To most it is a non-issue.

      So the VW-diesel fans got cheated. No big deal. Automakers cheat buyers all the time.

      The trick is to buy from an automaker who has cheated the buyers the least over time.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        @highdesertcat, I read down and then up after making that comment, and while I agree with you, I think there’s more going on. The betrayal of trust issue keeps coming up, and I think that issue holds more power with the younger commenters. Maybe some of them are subliminally reminded of the traumatic experience of finding out Santa wasn’t real, but you would think after the further exposure of the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, they would have become realists by now. It’s just tough to contemplate the reality that the world runs on the deception of advertising and public relations imagineering.

        • 0 avatar
          highdesertcat

          Lorenzo, in your reference to “the younger commenters”, I have come to realize that the current generation seems to be laboring under a totally different set of expectations, rather than reality.

          When things don’t go their way, or go the way that they expect them to go, they are easily offended, hurt, taken aback, and outraged at such an injustice.

          It’s a good thing they did not have to endure the abuse inflicted by the automakers of the fifties and sixties, who caused me so much grief at a time when I could ill afford it.

          We live. We learn. I found it best to go with an automaker who has cheated their customers the least.

          VW’s cheating scandal is nothing compared to the cheating the Big 3 did, passing off their new cars as safe when they weren’t.

          Yah, and then………. Ralph Nader, and later Joan Claybrook. Does anyone remember Joan?

    • 0 avatar
      matador

      I ranked it high (Second), because that was how they modeled their company- VW’s TDi market was for the environmentally conscious. Everything they did was a giant lie. Emissions aren’t as bad as the deaths caused by Takata, but VW basically gave their customers the middle finger. That’s unacceptable.

  • avatar
    Mattias

    I’d definitely rank the Toyota recall and the Takata airbag recall equally for a reason many of these cars had good reputations before the recalls and were considered safe and reliable. The Takata recall probably has a higher impact on me as I owned a 2001 accord in one of the “hot spots” (California) and know people who own affected cars (the BMW E46 3 and the Chrysler 300 wagon). The Toyota recall was a shock to me as I viewed Toyota as a great brand. The GM recall probably was no surprise as many of the cars recalled were crap… The VW diesel scandal… Now it’s too early to tell what’s going on but I can admit that this is not a safety recall and most VWs are great cars (remember this affects Audi as well). I just hope they get to the bottom of the scandal and figure out if Winterkorn or Piech were involved

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    My rankings of these scandals are as follows:

    1. Takata – Airbags are a passive system that operate without any input from the driver. That means that I cannot have an impact on their operation (other than avoiding a crash.) The fact that the propellant is unstable and moisture makes it more unstable in my opinion makes this worse than the others. There is no way that a chemist or engineer would NOT know that fact.

    2. GM ignition switches – a sudden loss of power makes controlling the vehicle incredibly difficult. GM’s penny pinching along with consequences of a failure put this at #2 for me. Cover up also makes it more serious.

    3. VW – deliberate cheating to make a profit. That alone is serious. The health and environmental aspects are open to debate therefor I don’t score this one any higher. Disease and death D/T pollution can be extrapolated but direct links to these cars would be impossible to assess accurately.

    4. Toyota UA – that one from my perspective is serious but the problem is amplified by driver’s making incredibly poor decisions. I don’t know of an automatic transmission that isn’t easy to pop into neutral. My take on this one was that Toyota was culpable due to a very sluggish top down bureaucratic response to the issue.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      Incredibly difficult? I’ve never seen such a vehicle. My buddy even drove his 3/4-ton Dodge around with no power steering for a bit when it had a problem. Sure, he really had to lean on it while parking, but not a big deal above that. I’ve cut the power on a few vehicles at highway speed and steering feel improved in every case.

      I can see how an elderly person might have problems if it happened at city speeds though.

      Anyway, I’d also go Takata #1, with VW at #2. The other two don’t bother me. Corporations shouldn’t have to put so much effort into preventing stupid people from killing themselves.

  • avatar

    MANY OF YOU will pay the ultimate price for not buying an SRT product.

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