Takata hit with US criminal probe over exploding airbags

 A photo taken on Nov 11, 2014 shows Japanese auto parts maker Takata's accessories on display at a car showroom in Tokyo. -- PHOTO: AFP 
 A photo taken on Nov 11, 2014 shows Japanese auto parts maker Takata's accessories on display at a car showroom in Tokyo. -- PHOTO: AFP 

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese autoparts company Takata confirmed on Friday that US justice authorities have opened a criminal investigation into its exploding airbags linked to at least five driver deaths.

The Tokyo-based company said it was "dealing with" a subpoena from a grand jury in New York targeting the defect, but it declined to give further details.

"We have received it," a Takata spokesman said.

"Of course, we are dealing with it. We have also received an instruction from NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States) to deal with it," he added.

The US federal grand jury and NHTSA have also told the firm to submit documents related to airbag problems, Takata said.

The safety watchdog has expanded its "urgent" warning to owners of cars with affected airbags to take them to dealers to fix the problem immediately.

Some 16 million vehicles produced by 10 global automakers have been recalled worldwide over worries that the Takata airbags in them can explode when inflating, firing potentially deadly shrapnel at the car's occupants.

Affected automakers include Honda, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota.

Four deaths have been reported in the United States claiming to be related to the problem. On Thursday, Honda said an exploding airbag had also killed a woman in Malaysia, and it recalled a further 170,000 vehicles worldwide over the issue.

On Friday, Honda's Malaysian unit said the unnamed woman was pregnant and that her unborn baby also died following the accident.

"Our hearts and sympathy go out to the individual and family who have been affected by this tragic accident," Honda spokesman Jordhatt Johan told AFP.

"A woman passed away and the foetus died."

Police reportedly investigated at least one driver death in the US as a murder due to the woman's grisly injuries, until their focus switched to the vehicle's airbag.

The US criminal investigation comes amid lawsuits and regulatory probes against the 80-year-old company, whose top executives have been largely mute on the mounting crisis.

"When companies put their own profits ahead of the lives of American consumers, they deserve to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law," US Senator Claire McCaskill said.

"I'm pleased the US Attorney has taken swift action here to open a criminal probe," the Democrat lawmaker added.

- Cover-up claims -

McCaskill's statement came as the powerful Senate Commerce Committee announced that it was holding a hearing next Thursday on the Takata airbag case, including how the company and US auto safety regulators have tackled the issue since the airbag recalls began in 2008.

"The hearing will focus on how defective Takata airbags became installed in so many vehicles and the responses of both automakers and NHTSA to remedy the safety defect to protect consumers," the committee said in a statement.

Takata, whose Tokyo-listed shares have lost about half their value since an investigation was opened this summer, has warned of a bigger-than-expected annual loss due to the scandal.

In a statement late Thursday, Takata said it had accounted for costs tied to the recalls, but could not predict its total financial liabilities.

Also on Thursday, Takata rejected a high-profile report that claimed it had covered up the results of tests on the faulty airbags a decade ago.

Quoting former Takata employees, the New York Times reported last week that tests were conducted by its US subsidiary in 2004, but executives ordered the destruction of data that exposed design flaws.

In response, Takata said the tests were unrelated to the inflator mechanism at the centre of the current probes.

But The Times, as it reported Takata's rebuttal, quoted an unnamed former Takata employee as saying: "What Takata says is not true."

Founded in 1933 as a textile company, Takata evolved into an automotive parts giant that started selling airbags in the 1980s and now has dozens of plants and offices in 20 countries, including the United States, China and Mexico.

The airbag division accounts for about 40 per cent of its total revenue, which amounted to 556.99 billion yen (S$6.23 billion) last fiscal year.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.