The CEO of Takata – the firm behind a massive recall of potentially deadly airbags – has been summoned by Japan's powerful industry ministry, according to sources.
The body wants Shigehisa Takada, the third-generation head of the Tokyo-based auto safety equipment maker and also chairman of the group, to explain what the company is doing to resolve the crisis.
More than 16 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide since 2008 to replace Takata airbag inflators, which can explode with too much force and shoot metal fragments into the car. At least five deaths have been linked to the defect, all in Honda cars.
He is expected to attend talks at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) with senior officials, including director-general Atsuo Kuroda, as early as Monday afternoon, one of two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Takada last appeared publicly at a closed-to-the-media shareholders' meeting nearly six months ago, where he apologised for the airbag problems. In a statement issued on Tuesday, he acknowledged the company "can and must do more".
Takata spokesman Toyohiro Hishikawa said he was not immediately able to confirm whether Takada had been called in by the ministry. A METI spokesman said he had no immediate comment.
Representatives from Takata have had several meetings with officials from METI's automotive division in recent weeks, according to the sources, who didn't want to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Business associates who have met Takada recently have told Reuters he said Takata had identified and fixed the main cause of the airbag defect, which he said was mainly a flawed manufacturing process.
Takada told those people that the cause is limited to certain timeframes and specific production plants, meaning the current crisis could be resolved once Takata conducts the necessary recalls.
"While mindful of the lives lost and other people injured in Takata-related accidents, we don't see this as a case that would affect Japan's industrial brand," the person said. "We don't think this has that kind of magnitude ... as far as we could tell now."
A more fundamental shortcoming, such as a design flaw rather than a manufacturing issue, or a significant expansion in the scale of car recalls could change matters though, but at present this is not suspected to be the case.
"Our concern is more on US-Japan relations; we want to make sure this doesn't affect the two country's relations and we want to make sure this is not a case of Japan-bashing. We think it's not, today," one of the sources said.
But US auto safety regulator the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) said yesterday that Takata's response to an order to expand a recall of its airbags nationwide was "disappointing".
The firm has not made its response public, but a spokeswoman in Tokyo said the contents echoed a statement by Shigehisa yesterday that left the decision for a nationwide recall up to carmakers, and made no mention of whether Takata was admitting that its airbag inflators were defective, as ordered by NHTSA last week.
"Takata shares responsibility for keeping drivers safe, and we believe anything short of a national recall does not live up to that responsibility," NHTSA said in an email to Reuters. The regulator said it would review Takata's response to determine its next steps.
In ordering a nationwide recall last week, NHTSA said it could begin steps to fine Takata up to $7,000 (£4,500) per vehicle not recalled, as well as force a recall. The maximum penalty under current law is $35m.
Takata currently faces a criminal probe, more than 20 class action lawsuits, and congressional scrutiny over its inflators. The company supplies around a fifth of the world's airbags.
In his statement released yesterday, Takada outlined steps aimed at demonstrating Takata's commitment to safety, including forming an independent panel to audit its manufacturing procedures, which will release a public report.