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Chrysler airbags safe despite recall?

by David Zatz on

Today, Chrysler released the prepared testimony of Chrysler’s Scott Kunselman on the issue of “shrapnel” from Takata airbags. He told a Senate committee that the company had not used the airbags originally found to be dangerous, and were assured by Takata the ones they did use were safe. When the company did discover an incident, the car’s owner refused to provide any access to the airbag for further investigation.

Scott Kunselman

Mr. Kunselman claimed that internal investigations found no evidence of any problems with the type of Takata airbags used by Chrysler vehicles, other than that one exception, which they could not examine. He said, “These are known to have deployed successfully more than 9,000 times in Chrysler Group vehicles, with 830 of those deployments occurring in the regions affected by our field action. This places the lone high-pressure deployment in the range of an anomaly.”

His full testimony follows:

Chairman McCaskill, Ranking Member Heller, members of the committee … my name is Scott Kunselman. I am Senior Vice President and Head of Vehicle Safety and Regulatory Compliance at Chrysler Group LLC and I report directly to our company CEO.

I lead a newly established organization responsible for vehicle safety and regulatory compliance. Previously, these functions were managed by our vehicle-engineering team.

Designing, engineering and manufacturing vehicles to withstand the myriad and sometimes unforeseen operating conditions to which they are exposed, is a daunting challenge. But it is one we embrace, because the fundamental goals of our business are to safeguard and satisfy our customers.

Recalls have been, are and will continue to be an essential mechanism to safeguard the public. Chrysler Group prides itself on having the highest recall completion rate of all major U.S.-market auto makers. NHTSA regards our customer-notification protocols as “industry-best.” Recently, the agency asked us to share our methods with a competitor. And we gladly complied.

Further, our average per-campaign vehicle volume is among the lowest in the industry – well below the industry average. This is testament to our transparency and demonstrates clearly the robustness of our fleet-monitoring and our rapid response when issues arise.

In the matter before us today, our engineers have been actively engaged with Takata and NHTSA since Takata advised us in April of 2013 that a defect had been discovered in inflators used by other auto makers. No Chrysler Group vehicle was ever built with these inflators, described by Takata as the Alpha population.

We used Takata’s Beta-population inflators and were assured these components were not defective. This finding was supported soon after by our own engineers, who conducted a follow-up audit of the supplier’s manufacturing operations.

In December of 2013, we were advised that a Chrysler Group vehicle in southern Florida was subject to a high-pressure deployment involving a driver’s-side air bag. This remains the only known incident of its kind involving a Chrysler Group vehicle.

We attempted to launch a complete investigation consistent with our standard protocols, but were denied access to the failed part by a plaintiff’s attorney. Nevertheless, we continued to stay engaged with Takata and NHTSA as component-testing was conducted.

In May of this year, seven months after the lone high-pressure deployment in our fleet, the supplier advised us of four such incidents involving vehicles produced by other manufacturers. Those vehicles were equipped with inflators similar to ours.

We were further advised that Takata had shared this information with NHTSA the week prior. On June 20, Chrysler Group acceded to a NHTSA request and committed to conduct a regional field action. This was done without benefit of the type of exhaustive investigation to which are accustomed, and despite the absence of a defect finding.

Since that date, we have been working to better understand the function of these inflators, while identifying, validating and making plans to acquire appropriate replacement parts. Accordingly, we will commence our action by Dec. 19, replacing inflators in approximately 371,000 vehicles in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

For the committee’s benefit, I respectfully submit that the distinction between the Alpha and Beta inflators cannot be overstated. The Alpha population is associated with the most severe events and found to contain a defect. No Chrysler Group vehicle was ever built with an Alpha-model inflator.

Chrysler Group vehicles were equipped with Beta inflators. These are known to have deployed successfully more than 9,000 times in Chrysler Group vehicles, with 830 of those deployments occurring in the regions affected by our field action. This places the lone high-pressure deployment in the range of an anomaly.

These observations are not made to reduce the magnitude nor urgency of the situation.  I raise them to suggest the industry’s response should be focused first on remedying the circumstances associated with the demonstrated risk.

In closing, be advised that Takata has been transparent and engaged with us throughout this investigation; while NHTSA has been open, assertive and cooperative. The agency’s staff has been instrumental in bringing together Takata and other auto makers to better understand inflator performance. And without such leadership, progress would certainly have been delayed.

I extend my thanks to the committee for airing this important topic. Further, I assure you that Chrysler Group has responded promptly, cooperatively and proportionately as events unfolded. In keeping with Chrysler Group protocol and sound engineering practice, these efforts will continue.

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