The federal government is expanding an investigation into malfunctioning air bags to include an additional 12.3 million vehicles with air bags that could fail to inflate in a crash.
The investigation now includes certain models of cars by Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler, which contain an air bag control unit produced by ZF-TRW, a German auto-parts company. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says this control unit, which is supposed to deploy the air bag upon detecting a collision, could fail to sense the crash because of electrical interference caused by the crash itself.
The problem may be responsible for as many as eight deaths, The Associated Press reports.
On April 19, NHTSA upgraded its investigation from a "preliminary evaluation" to an "engineering analysis" after it identified two major crashes — one fatal — involving Toyota Corollas where the air bag did not deploy. The expanded scope of the investigation was revealed Tuesday in documents posted by the agency. If the inquiry reveals widespread problems, the NHTSA could order a recall.
This new investigation is an expansion of a probe begun a year ago, in which the NHTSA examined air bags in some Hyundai and Kia vehicles that wouldn't deploy in frontal collisions. As NPR reported at the time, the safety agency was aware of six such crashes, leading to four deaths and six injuries. That probe included 425,000 vehicles.
"The specific concern with the air bags is an electrical overstress condition, which happens when an electronic device experiences a current or voltage beyond its specified limit," NPR's Jenny Gathright reported. The affected devices in that case were also supplied by ZF-TRW.
Air bags are a frequent object of safety investigations and recalls. Last month, Honda announced it was voluntarily recalling 1.1 million vehicles in the U.S. after a driver was injured by an exploding air bag with an inflator supplied by Takata.
Takata is part of the largest automotive recall in U.S. history, after some of the company's air bags began exploding and spraying shrapnel at drivers and passengers, killing 15 in the U.S. and injuring hundreds worldwide.
Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit consumer group the Center for Auto Safety, told the AP that the nondeployments caused by a ZF-TRW component show that the auto industry hasn't learned much from the Takata debacle.
"A single supplier of an important safety component provided what appears to be a defective part across multiple manufacturers and 12 million cars," Levine said. "While the first fatality reports emerged three years ago, it has taken a higher body count for more significant action to be taken by NHTSA, and most impacted manufacturers remain silent. The industry needs to do better."