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NHTSA deepens investigation of 12.3 million airbags for potential defects

The parts are found in old and new vehicles from Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Toyota.

The underlying alleged defect is wildly different from the problem that created the Takata scandal, but it could still impact crash safety nevertheless.

Caspar Benson/Getty Images

The mess of the Takata airbag-inflator scandal is still fresh in the automotive industry, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into a different airbag supplier, covering millions of parts across six different automakers.

NHTSA announced this week that it has expanded an investigation into potentially defective airbags. The parts come from the supplier TRW, now known as ZF-TRW. There are 12.3 million such parts installed in cars with model years ranging from 2010 and 2019. Right now, these parts are installed in vehicles from Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Toyota. The regulatory body has not produced a full list of affected vehicles at this time.

The potential issue stems from the supplier's airbag control unit, which crunches sensor data to determine whether or not to deploy a vehicle's airbags in the event of a crash. The control units, as NHTSA writes in its report, "may suffer electrical overstress due to harmful signals produced by the crash event." In layman's terms, this defect may cause the airbags to not deploy when they should.

NHTSA's report points out that Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai and Kia have all issued prior recalls for vehicles with this specific part. NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation also found two front crash events involving Toyota products with these parts. Thus, the agency has expanded its investigation to include not only the supplier, but also any manufacturer that has made use of the potentially faulty parts.

Investigations are the first step in a process that could turn into a recall. If NHTSA finds that there is a serious problem that could affect vehicle and passenger safety, then it can compel suppliers and automakers to recall vehicles with the flawed parts.