Regulators to Probe Air Bag Defects in 12.3 Million Cars

(CN) – Federal auto safety officials are widening an investigation into potential flaws in air bags in 12.3 million vehicles made by Kia, Fiat Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Honda and Toyota.

This undated combination of photos shows clockwise from top left the logos for Toyota, Honda, Kia, Fiat Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai. (AP Photos)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed the expanded investigation Tuesday in a document that states that ZF-TRW manufactured air bags could fail to deploy during a crash due to a defect in air bag control units. The probe is focused on vehicles with the model years 2010 to 2019. 

The document identifies one fatality in a Toyota Corolla and the alleged defect may have led to as many as eight deaths, according to the Associated Press. 

In a statement, ZF North America spokesman Tony Sapienza said the company is committed to vehicle safety and would cooperate with investigators. He said the company has “worked diligently” with federal regulators and automakers “following initial observations of electrical overstress damage to air bag control units in certain vehicles in the field.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, noted that during a preliminary evaluation, it had found that Hyundai and Kia had recalled vehicles because of the potential defect. The agency has now elevated its investigation to an engineering analysis of the air bags. 

“NHTSA has decided to expand its investigation into all makes and models containing the air bag control unit in question. NHTSA will take appropriate action based on the agency’s findings,” spokeswoman Kathryn Henry wrote in a prepared statement. 

Failing air bags have plagued consumers and the auto industry for years. Almost 70 million air bag inflators are to be recalled by the end of 2020 after regulators identified defects in Takata air bags. Defective air bags could explode in a crash, spraying shrapnel into passenger cabins. That led to at least 24 fatalities and more than 200 injuries.   

In September 2016, Fiat Chrysler recalled some Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles that had the ZF-TRW air bag control unit. 

Jason Levine, executive director of the consumer group Center for Auto Safety, said he was pleased that NHTSA had expanded the investigation to include six automakers. 

“However, we are discouraged by the apparent lack of lessons learned by the industry post the Takata recall,” Levine said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation document states that regulators will examine the ZF-TRW air bag control units to see what is disabling the air bags. The document says that signal failure in an electrical component of the bag’s control unit could lead it to fail to deploy in a crash. In addition, regulators “will evaluate whether an unreasonable risk exists that requires further field action.” 

In 2018, Hyundai and Kia recalled nearly 1.1 million vehicles almost a year after the NHTSA opened its investigation, and in 2016 Fiat Chrysler recalled about 1.9 million vehicles worldwide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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