NEW YORK – Safety regulators in the U.S. are investigating air bags in certain Hyundai and Kia vehicles that failed to deploy in frontal collisions linked to four deaths and six injuries.
As many as 425,000 automobiles made by the South Korean manufacturers may be affected, according to an investigative report posted on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website. NHTSA is investigating whether vehicles made by other carmakers may also be at risk.
The crashes involve Hyundai Sonatas and Sonata hybrids made in 2011, and Kia Forte and Kia Forte Koups made in 2012 and 2013. Hyundai on Feb. 27 recalled almost 155,000 Sonatas after determining that an electrical overstress failed to inflate the air bags during collisions. Hyundai is looking into the product supplier, ZF-TRW, for a possible cause for the electrical problem.
Air bags are already linked to the largest and most complex auto-related recall in U.S. history — the one that ultimately led Japan’s Takata Corp. to seek court protection from creditors after its devices were linked to at least 17 deaths. Unlike the Takata situation, which involved air bags exploding with shrapnel, the latest probe involves devices that failed to deploy at all.
The federal agency said it will work to determine whether any other automakers use air-bag control units that are the same or similar to those supplied by ZF-TRW, and whether those units behave the same way in similar crashes. A safety expert said that’s critical to determining how widespread the problem is and whether it’s just a Hyundai and Kia issue.
“If there is a component in the module that is used by other systems as well, that number could increase significantly,” said Keith Friedman, automotive safety researcher at Friedman Research Corp. in Austin, Texas, in a telephone interview Sunday. “If it has to do with the way this particular module has been manufactured, it could be localized to these particular vehicles.”
The Korean companies said they’re cooperating in the probe. Hyundai Motor Co. is “announcing this recall now to ensure the safety of our customers,” the company said in a statement. Kia Motors Corp. said it will work closely with the NHTSA, including monitoring crash reports and conducting more crash tests as needed.
ZF TRW was formed when closely held German company ZF Friedrichshafen AG bought U.S.-based TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. for more than $12 billion in 2015.
Takata last month agreed to pay as much as $650 million to settle claims in 44 states and the District of Columbia for defective air bags that can explode in car crashes, sending metal shards flying. The company has recalled millions of air bags — the largest recall in history — that had been linked to the deaths and spurred lawsuits leading to more than $1 billion in settlements from automakers including Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Subaru Corp., Mazda Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and BMW.
Last week, U.S. consumers filed class-action complaints in Miami federal court to recover costs against units of General Motors and Volkswagen as well as Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Fiat Chrysler. The complaints allege that the automakers deceived the public about the defects and associated dangers.