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Toyota Airbag Problems May Cause Failure to Deploy in Accident, Resulting In Recall for 3.4M Vehicles

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More than 3 million Toyota Corolla, Matrix and Avalon vehicles have been recalled, due to a risk that electrical problems may cause the airbags to fail to deploy in an auto accident.

The Toyota airbag recall was announced on January 21, due to defects in the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) in millions of vehicles, which could prevent the air bags and seat belt pretensioners from functioning as they are intended.

The problems may impact several different automakers, and federal regulators indicate the issues may have already resulted in several deaths. Toyota says one of those deaths occurred with one of its own affected vehicles.

The recall involves approximately 3.4 million model year 2011 through 2019 Corolla, 2011 to 2013 Matrix, 2012 to 2018 Avalon, and 2013 through 2018 Avalon Hybrid vehicles that were equipped with ECU’s supplied by German auto parts giant ZF TRW Automotive Holdings Corporation.

The action comes after a nearly yearlong investigation by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), which began in April 2019, following several fatalities reported in relation to ECU’s failing to lock the seatbelt pretensioners and deploy airbags in certain Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi vehicles.

According to the recall, the vehicle ECU’s are designed to receive signals from crash sensors and deploy the airbags and seat belt pretensioners. However, Toyota determined the ECU may not have adequate protection against certain electrical noise that can occur in certain types of crashes, such as a severe underride collision.

The investigation determined this type of electric noise may cause the ECU to fail to send a signal to deploy the airbags and seatbelt pretensioners, leaving drivers and occupants vulnerable to increased injuries or death.

To date, Toyota is aware of at least two severe front end crashes in which the ECU failed to deploy the airbags and seatbelt pretensioners due to electrical noise issues, resulting in one fatality. According to NHTSA records, in both incidents the vehicles Event Data Recorder determined the air bag control units were unresponsive during the crash.

Toyota indicates owners will be notified of the recall and will be provided instructions on how to schedule an inspection at their local dealer. The dealers will install a noise filter between the airbag control module and its wire harness, if necessary. The recall is expected to begin by mid-March 2020. Customers with additional questions or concerns are encouraged to contact Toyota Customer Experience Center at 1-800-331-4331.

Problem Seen In Other Manufacturers As Well

Although Toyota has recalled vehicles vulnerable to the ECU defect, the NHTSA warns that more than 12 million vehicles by Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi were also supplied similar ECU’s by ZF TRW Automotive Holdings Corporation, and could be prone to the same interference issues.

The NHTSA’s ODI is still conducting an Engineering Analysis of the ECU’s supplied by ZF TRW to other automobile manufacturers, as well as collecting field reports to determine if additional recalls are warranted.

Wiring interference causing air bag and pretensioner failure has been common over the last several years. In 2016, Fiat Chrysler recalled 1.43 million 2010 through 2014 Chrysler 200 and Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger, 2010 through 2014 Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot and 2010 through 2012 Dodge Caliber models. This recall was issued to correct a wiring defect following three crash reports resulting in fatalities due to the air bags not deploying.

In 2018, Hyundai recalled 425,000 2011 Sonata vehicles and 2012 through 2013 Kia Forte models to fix a wiring defect that could interfere with the air bags. The defect was potentially linked to at least four fatalities in which either the seat belt pretensioners or air bags failed to deploy.

The ongoing ECU wiring issues are different from the Takata airbag recall series, which have impacted 56 million inflators installed in 19 automobile manufacturer vehicle lines that make up approximately 95% of the U.S. vehicle fleet. The recalled Takata ammonium nitrate inflators have been found to unexpectedly explode under certain conditions, such as high humidity, causing the airbag to over-inflate and send shrapnel flying into the passenger compartment of the vehicle.

To date, at least 16 deaths have been reported in the United States, with 14 of those involving impacted Honda vehicles, and two involving Ford models. At least seven additional deaths involving Honda vehicles equipped with Takata airbags have been reported outside of the United States.

A number of airbag recall lawsuits have been filed over the Takata airbag problems, many of which have been resolved through settlement agreements.

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