Kia, Hyundai Recall Over a Million Vehicles for Possible Electronic Airbag Defect

Injury Relief readers may notice a theme that often pops up in our blog: When it comes to automotive defects, the airbag seems to be a recurring culprit.

That disturbing trend continues in a recall issued by Kia and Hyundai. According to the company and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Kia Motors (and one of its controlling shareholders Hyundai Group) have issued a recall of over a million vehicles in the U.S. because their airbags may fail to deploy in an accident. This failure is allegedly caused by an electronic defect and Kia isn’t quite sure yet how to fix it.

The Details

Kia’s recall actually comes in response to an investigation opened by the NHTSA after it learned of six related accidents. In each incident, the vehicles’ airbags didn’t deploy during the wreck, to disastrous results. According to reports the issue stems from a problem with the vehicles’ electronic signals not triggering airbag deployment, reminiscent of a 2016 Hyundai recall. In crashes related to the new recall, four people were known to have died and another six were seriously injured.

Kia’s official statement about the problem itself is as follows:

The airbag control unit (ACU) detects crash severity and commands deployment of the advanced airbags and seatbelt pretensioners when necessary. The recalled vehicles are equipped with an ACU that contains a certain application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) that may be susceptible to electrical overstress during certain frontal crash events. If the ASIC becomes damaged from electrical overstress, the front airbags and front seatbelt pretensioners may not deploy in certain frontal crashes where deployment may be necessary, thereby increasing the risk of injury to vehicle occupants.

It seems the electronic “brain” that governs the deployment of airbags and seatbelt pretensioners has a chance of overloading when a crash occurs. That “overstress” may prevent it from sending activation signals to those airbags and seatbelts, at which point they’re useless in a wreck. Obviously if the major safety devices in a car don’t work when they’re needed most, there’s significant risk of grievous, possible fatal, injury.

The faulty airbag system is made by German company ZF Friedrichshafen (ZF), which is cooperating fully with the NHTSA’s investigation.

How Many Vehicles Are Affected?

The newest Kia recall involves about 507,000 vehicles across multiple years and models:

  • 2010-2013 Optima,
  • 2009-2013 Forte and Forte Koup,
  • 2010-2013 Sedona, and
  • 2011-2013 Optima Hybrid.

Additionally, Hyundai recalled around 420,000 Sonata-model vehicles for similar issues in April. It had already issued a separate recall two months prior, notifying owners of 154,000 additional Sonatas that could have the same problem.

In total that’s 1,081,000 vehicles–an enormous recall no matter how it’s sliced up.

The electronic "brain" that governs the deployment of airbags and seatbelt pretensioners has a chance of overloading when a crash occurs.

What Can Be Done?

Kia’s press statement notes it doesn’t have a fix yet for the airbag problem. It assures drivers that as soon as a solution is found the company will issue printed notices with instructions on how to obtain repairs. Inevitably, this will be a matter of contacting a local Kia dealer to schedule maintenance (basically all recalls boil down to this one key step), but the company can’t really suggest that until its dealerships have the right corrective measures available. The statement assures consumers that the projected mailing date for the recall’s kickoff is July 27.

In the meantime, the auto manufacturer says that while it can’t stop people from continuing to drive their affected vehicles, it strongly discourages them from doing so. In their defense, suggesting that useless airbags and seatbelts aren’t a big deal would verge on sociopathic. A Kia spokesperson told the press that if a solution isn’t found by July 27, or if a consumer feels too unsafe in his or her car to drive it, Kia will provide a rental car until the repairs are done.

What This Means

It’s hard to remember a time when automakers weren’t issuing panicky post hoc recalls because some part of their product broke, wobbled, exploded, shorted out, or otherwise endangered consumers. I get that machines as complex as cars and trucks have a lot of moving parts, but thats why they’re supposed to be subjected to rigorous testing–to ensure that Joe Punchclock isn’t let down by his airbag during a moment that’s already affecting his well-being.

Kia and Hyundai contracted out their airbag creation and supply to ZF, who has made car parts since the early twentieth century. Granted, making advanced sensor circuitry is different than hamming together crankshafts and gears, but no matter what the car part is it must function without a hitch. Otherwise, lives may needlessly be lost.

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I think it’s time for auto manufacturers to take a deep breath and look more carefully at what they’re trying to accomplish. Despite the fiscal problems the industry as a whole faces, every company races to outproduce and out-innovate its peers. This competitive spirit is an integral part of the free-market system, yes, but in their haste to dazzle consumers it seems that the auto companies are letting product quality and corporate integrity fall by the wayside.

The last few years have seen multiple worldwide automotive recalls. Two months ago, Ford recalled 1.3 million vehicles with steering issues. A month before that Toyota recalled 65,000 vehicles over “improperly fastened bolts” and their Vehicle Stability Control Systems. BMW also had to put out a recall after learning thousands of its vehicles had the wrong software installed. Even Tesla, a relative new kid on the block, has issued several recall notices.

Moreover, several companies that make parts for these cars, while not as often known by name, have to recall their products. The most notorious of these may be Takata, the company whose faulty airbags created the largest recall in history (>50 million affected vehicles), but they’re far from the only ones.

There’s a model in project management called the “Iron Triangle.” It says that a product can be good, fast, or cheap, and any manufacturer can only expect to achieve two of those three goals in a finished product.

  • If a product is fast and good, it will be expensive to produce.
  • If it’s good and cheap, it will be time-consuming to produce and market.
  • If it’s fast and cheap, its quality will likely suffer.

These days automakers seem to lean more toward fast and cheap when creating their cars. It’s part of the times we live in, where products aren’t built with “forever” in mind; rather, they are based upon planned obsolescence, in which things are designed to wear down and break after a relatively short time.

Making manufacturers change their ways to a different pair of the Iron Triangle would be extremely tough. They have to make new products to keep consumers interested, and they have to do that cheaply to remain profitable. That means inferior materials and/or insufficient quality control, while not guaranteed, are increasingly common in almost every industry, including autos. The law will continue to ensure that companies who fecklessly cut corners are held responsible for the damage they cause.

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