By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Tuesday it is expanding a probe into potentially defective airbags to 12.3 million vehicles and upgrading it to an engineering analysis, a step required before it can seek to compel recalls.
The agency, known as NHTSA, said the airbags were installed in some vehicles from model years 2010 through 2019 sold by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Honda Motor Co, Hyundai Motor Co, Kia Motors Corp, Mitsubishi and Toyota Motor Corp.
They were equipped with an airbag control unit initially produced by TRW Automotive Holdings Corp, which is now owned by ZF Friedrichshafen. The agency said they could fail during a crash.
NHTSA first opened a probe in 2018 of about 400,000 vehicles and said Tuesday it has reports of two crashes and two injuries related to the defect along with one death in a Toyota vehicle.
ZF spokesman John Wilkerson said the company “is committed to motor vehicle safety and is working cooperatively with NHTSA and our customers in the investigation.”
Toyota said it is “cooperating with NHTSA’s engineering analysis. Toyota is also continuing its investigation into this issue and will take any appropriate action.”
At issue is whether the airbag control units may suffer electrical overstress due to harmful signals resulting from a crash, causing them to stop working during such an event. In opening its probe, NHTSA said: “the probability of this occurring appears to be low.”
NHTSA noted on Tuesday that there have recently been two substantial frontal crashes that may be tied to the issue, including the fatal Toyota crash. The agency is looking at whether an “unreasonable risk exists that requires further field action.”
Hyundai, Kia and Fiat Chrysler have previously issued recalls for more than 2.5 million vehicles with the airbag control units in question that might not deploy in crashes.
When it recalled nearly 2 million vehicles for airbag nondeployments with the issue in 2016, Fiat Chrysler said it had reports of three deaths and five injuries that might be related to the defect.
In a statement on Tuesday, Fiat Chrysler said that “when we became aware of this issue in 2016, we responded accordingly. However, we will cooperate fully with NHTSA’s investigation.”
Hyundai and Kia recalled more than 650,000 vehicles for airbag nondeployment concerns in 2018.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)