Federal officials investigating airbags made by auto supplier ZF TRW Automotive that could fail to deploy in a crash are widening their probe to encompass more than 12 million vehicles made by multiple auto manufacturers. The malfunctioning airbags are linked to at least eight deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that its Office of Defects Investigation has expanded the probe to include both the airbag manufacturer and six automakers that use the potentially defective devices in their vehicles — Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Toyota.

The investigation now covers about 12.3 million vehicles from model-years 2010 to 2019, several top-selling models such as the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Sonata, Jeep Compass and Kia Forte.

NHTSA says the ZF TRW airbag failures may be caused by an electronic defect. Investigators suspect electrical interference from nearby wiring could cause the airbags to fail. In the event of a crash, electrical signals sent from crash sensors to the electronic component that controls the airbag could overstress and damage the driver- and passenger-side airbags units, potentially causing them to fail.

Investigators say the same electronic component (the application specific integrated circuit, or ASIC) that controls the airbags also controls the seatbelt pre-tensioners. As a result, seatbelts in the affected vehicles may fail to function properly in a crash.

Although ZF TRW hasn’t recalled the airbag units under investigation, some automakers have taken measures to address the problem in some of the vehicles.

Last year, Hyundai and Kia recalled nearly a million cars and trucks to fix wiring that could interfere with airbags, including the 2011-13 Hyundai Sonata, the 2011-12 Sonata Hybrid, the 2010-13 Kia Forte and Forte Koup, the 2011-13 Kia Optima, the 2011-12 Optima Hybrid, and the 2011-12 Kia Sedona.

In 2016, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) recalled 1.4 million Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles, including the 2011-14 Chrysler 200, the 2010 Chrysler Sebring, the 2010-12 Dodge Caliber, and the 2010-14 Jeep Patriot, Compass, and Dodge Avenger.

William Willace, a safety policy advocate for Consumer Reports, said that auto companies don’t have to wait for NHTSA investigation to recall their cars, and they shouldn’t.

“Like the Takata [airbag] crisis, the current investigation focuses on safety issues with faulty airbags that still aren’t resolved after several years and problems that stretch across multiple car companies,” Mr. Willace said, according to Consumer Reports.

NHTSA is also managing the recall of more than 56 million airbag inflator units made by now-defunct Japanese auto supplier Takata. That recall is the largest-ever auto recall in U.S. history and involves airbag units that can deploy or explode with deadly force.

NHTSA said its ongoing investigation of the ZF TRW airbag problem includes two “substantial frontal-crash events” involving model-year 2018 and 2019 Toyota Corollas in which the airbags failed to deploy. One of those crashes resulted in a fatality, the agent noted.

Additional sources:
USA Today
Newsweek

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