A group of automakers and parts manufacturers have intentionally failed to disclose to American drivers that the airbags and seatbelts in more than 15 million vehicles may fail to activate in head-on collisions due to an electrical defect, a proposed class action lawsuit alleges.
Thirty-one plaintiffs charge in the sprawling 636-page complaint that ZF TRW-made airbag control units containing specialized STMicro microchips fail to properly receive and interpret signals from the cars’ crash sensors due to an electrical current vulnerability. This, the suit says, can prevent airbags from deploying and seatbelts from tightening when a crash is imminent.
According to the lawsuit, the defendants—a who’s who of auto heavyweights that includes Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Kia, Hyundai, Toyota, Mitsubishi and the companies who make the computers and circuitry that power safety control systems in the automakers’ vehicles—have flouted their basic legal responsibilities to report safety defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), owners and lessees, and auto dealers while falsely and misleadingly reassuring drivers via nationwide advertising that their cars were safe.
In all, the defendants have known of the airbag control unit defect plaguing millions of cars for “at least a decade” yet pushed these vehicles to market and delayed issuing recalls for the affected models, the lawsuit alleges.
“Instead of timely and completely warning consumers—who have driven and continue to drive vehicles with these defective [airbag control units] every day—Defendants conspired to conceal the defect,” the suit claims. “That decision cost lives.”
Per the case, the NHTSA and the automaker defendants have linked airbag and seatbelt failures caused by the defect to “at least eight known deaths” and many other serious injuries.
Though Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai and Kia recalled millions of cars between September 2016 and July 2018, with Toyota initiating its own recall in 2020, the defendants have still failed to pull millions of affected vehicles from the road while attempting to justify this inaction by “obscuring the nature and scope” of the defect via “misleading statements and material omissions.”
Consumers would not have bought or leased the affected vehicles, or would have paid less for the cars, had the apparent airbag control unit defect been disclosed at the point of sale, the plaintiffs contend.
“Brain” of airbag control units crippled by defect, lawsuit says
Michigan-based and German-owned ZF TRW manufactures the computerized airbag control units (ACUs) found in vehicles made by FCA, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Toyota, the lawsuit says. Defendant STMicro, a multinational conglomerate of semiconductor and electronic chip makers and retailers, manufactures the DS84 application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) used in some of ZF TRW’s airbag control units.
STMicro’s custom-made DS84 ASIC is the “brain” of ZF TRW’s airbag control units and is responsible for processing the signal received from a vehicle’s crash sensors and activating the airbags and seatbelts, the case says. According to the complaint, however, a defect within the DS84 ASIC makes the airbag control units “much more vulnerable” to bursts of electricity than other ACUs, including other models made by ZF TRW.
Vulnerability to electricity is especially dangerous because some car crashes can produce large bursts of electricity that discharge throughout the front of the vehicle, a potential danger that has been “common knowledge” in the auto industry for decades, the lawsuit says. It’s for this reason that airbag control units must be sufficiently protected from stray electrical currents—sometimes called “transient currents”—to which they may be exposed during a crash, the complaint relays.
According to the lawsuit, however, transient electricity produced in “many” car accidents over the last decade have overheated and rendered useless ZF TRW’s DS84 ASIC, causing airbags and seatbelts to remain idle in situations in which they’re most needed.
In those crashes, the ASIC was damaged by heat, or “electrical overstress,” a phenomenon well known in the auto world, the case says. Per the complaint, a properly designed airbag control unit should have no problem withstanding bursts of transient electrical energy during a crash.
In some crashes involving the electrical overstressing of a DS84 ASIC, visible burn marks can be seen on the airbag control unit’s circuit board:
In other accidents, signs of electrical overstress included the complete or partial loss of crash data on a vehicle’s event data recorder, i.e. the automotive equivalent of an airplane’s “black box.”
Lawsuit: At least a decade of knowledge, yet little to no action taken by automakers
Per the lawsuit, Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Toyota returned to ZF TRW “dozens” of DS84 ASIC airbag control units displaying signs of electrical overstress between 2009 and 2016. Moreover, internal testing done by the automakers within that time frame identified similar vulnerabilities, the case says.
Despite possessing knowledge of the potentially catastrophic risks posed by the circuitry in ZF TRW’s airbag control units, the defendants remained collectively and illegally mum on the subject, issuing neither recalls nor warnings to drivers, the lawsuit alleges. Even in light of what the case calls “well-documented” accidents undisputedly evidencing the airbag control unit defect—and notwithstanding deaths and injuries in those accidents—the defendants continued to reassure drivers that their cars were safe, according to the suit.
For example, Hyundai and Kia discovered in 2011 and 2012 “at least four” airbag failures in crashes involving vehicles equipped with ZF TRW airbag control units, the complaint reads. Further, Fiat Chrysler and ZR TRW knew of “at least ten” airbag failures in FCA vehicles by 2016, and Toyota, Honda and Mitsubishi were alerted to the problem by the same year, the case says.
“More recently, NHTSA and Toyota have linked two fatalities to airbag failures in Toyota vehicles with defective ACUs,” the suit relays.
Admissions, an NHTSA inquiry, but no recalls, case says
According to the complaint, the automakers have effectively admitted that the DS84 ASIC is dangerously susceptible to transient electrical currents produced in head-on collisions yet have left roughly nine million affected vehicles on the road. In an effort to obscure the nature and scope of the defect, the defendants have, for instance, blamed the problem on minor wiring variations in the front of the affected vehicles or claimed to have solved the issue by adding “limited protective components” to the cars to block transient electrical currents, the lawsuit says.
In truth, though, every ZF TRW-made airbag control unit with a DS84 ASIC is defective regardless of a vehicle’s wiring or protective component combinations, the plaintiffs allege.
The complaint notes that the NHTSA launched an inquiry in April 2019 into the safety risk posed by unrecalled vehicles equipped with ZF TRW airbag control units, particularly those running on the DS84 ASIC. The investigation is ongoing, according to the lawsuit.
Which cars have allegedly defective airbag control units?
The lawsuit says the following vehicle models are equipped with uniformly defective airbag control units that may fail to engage airbags and seatbelts in a front-end collision:
- 2011–2019 Hyundai Sonata;
- 2011–2019 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid;
- 2010–2013 Kia Forte;
- 2010–2013 Kia Forte Koup;
- 2011–2020 Kia Optima;
- 2011–2016 Kia Optima Hybrid;
- 2011–2012, 2014 Kia Sedona;
- 2010–2014 Chrysler 200;
- 2010 Chrysler Sebring;
- 2010–2014 Dodge Avenger;
- 2010–2017 Jeep Compass;
- 2010–2013 Jeep Liberty;
- 2010–2017 Jeep Patriot;
- 2010–2018 Jeep Wrangler;
- 2010–2012 Dodge Caliber;
- 2009–2012 Dodge Ram 1500;
- 2010–2012 Dodge Ram 2500/3500;
- 2011–2012 Dodge Ram 3500/4500/5500 Cab-Chassis;
- 2010–2012 Dodge Nitro;
- 2012–2019 Fiat 500;
- 2013–2015 Honda Accord;
- 2012–2015 Honda Civic (including GX, SI and Hybrid models);
- 2012–2016 Honda CR-V;
- 2013–2014 Honda Fit EV;
- 2012–2017 Honda Fit;
- 2012–2014 Honda Ridgeline;
- 2014–2019 Acura RLX (and the hybrid model);
- 2012–2014 Acura TL;
- 2015–2017 Acura TLX;
- 2012–2014 Acura TSX (and the TSX Sport Wagon model);
- 2011–2019 Toyota Corolla;
- 2011–2013 Toyota Corolla Matrix;
- 2012–2018 Toyota Avalon;
- 2013–2018 Toyota Avalon HV;
- 2012–2019 Toyota Tacoma;
- 2012–2017 Toyota Tundra;
- 2012–2017 Toyota Sequoia;
- 2013–2017 Mitsubishi Lancer;
- 2013–2015 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution;
- 2013–2015 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart;
- 2013–2016 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback; and
- 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander.
Each plaintiff bought or leased their vehicle with the reasonable expectation that it came with working airbags and seatbelts, the suit stresses. Per the case, the consumers suffered a concrete injury in that the automakers, ZF TRW, and STMicro concealed the existence of the airbag control unit defect and thereby deprived buyers of the full benefit of their bargain.
The lawsuit names as defendants ZF Active Safety and Electronics US LLC; ZF Passive Safety Systems US Inc.; ZF Automotive US Inc.; ZF TRW Automotive Holdings Corp.; ZF North America, Inc.; ZF Holdings B.V.; ZF Friedrichshafen AG, STMicroelectronics N.V.; STMicroelectronics International N.V.; STMicroelectronics Inc., Hyundai Motor Co., Ltd.; Hyundai Motor America, Inc.; Hyundai MOBIS Co. Ltd.; Mobis Parts America, LLC; Kia Motors Corporation; Kia Motors America; FCA US LLC; Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.; Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor North America Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.; Honda Motor Co. Ltd.; American Honda Motor Co., Inc.; Honda of America Mfg., Inc.; Honda R&D Co., Ltd.; Honda R&D Americas, LLC; Mitsubishi Motors Corporation; and Mitsubishi Motors North America, Inc.
Who’s covered by this lawsuit?
The lawsuit looks to represent anyone in the United States who bought or leased any of the vehicle models listed above.
I own/lease one of these cars. How do I join this lawsuit?
Generally, there’s nothing you need to do to “join” or be considered a part of a proposed class action lawsuit. These types of cases almost always take some time to work their way through the legal system, usually toward a settlement or dismissal. This means that it might be a while—months or even years—before the time comes for drivers covered by the suit to file claims for compensation, and that’s only in the event of a settlement.
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