Why Continental Automotive recalled 5 million air bag control units

The company said fewer than 2 million vehicles in the US are affected, and said it would notify automakers.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File
The 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan is unveiled during the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. Continental Automotive Systems said on Thursday, it supplied potentially defective airbag control units to 5 million vehicles used in Honda, Fiat Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, and other vehicles built over a five-year period, widening the auto industry's airbag safety crisis. On Thursday, Fiat Chrysler said it is recalling 112,000 US vehicles for the same issue, including the 2009 Dodge Journey, 2008-2009 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country, and 2009 Volkswagen Routan that it had assembled for the German automaker.

Continental Automotive will recall faulty airbag control units that were installed in 5 million vehicles worldwide.

The company told the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that electronic systems built from 2006 through 2010 and used in 5 million vehicles may have a malfunction which could prevent the airbags from deploying or cause inadvertent inflation without warning.

Continental said that fewer than 2 million vehicles in the US are affected, and said it would notify automakers that installed these airbag control units in their vehicles. The manufacturers are to notify customers and replace the units.

The announcement comes in the middle of a crisis involving Takata Corp. air bag inflators, with approximately 24 million US vehicles being recalled for the faulty airbag units, making it the largest automotive recall in US history, according to The Washington Post. So far 14 automakers have recalled about 24 million vehicles made by Takata Corp that could rupture, emitting potentially deadly metal fragments.

Takata's inflators are equipped with an ammonium nitrate, a chemical propellant which is said to be unstable especially in high-humidity areas like the southeastern United States, and can explode with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister and sending shrapnel into the passenger compartment. At least 11 people have been reported dead worldwide, and 139 injured from the problem, according to Forbes.

The NHTSA has long been investigating issues related with air bag inflators. Its first inquiry into Takata’s product occured in 2009 after it received case reports of people who had died due to the airbag malfunction.

Last November, the highway safety agency issued Takata a $200 million fine – its largest civil penalty ever – and ordered the company to stop making inflators with ammonium nitrate.

The root cause of the failures is still uncertain, and the NHTSA is casting a wide net to capture all the vehicles that are potentially affected, the magazine reported.

Fiat Chrysler, American Honda Motor Co., and Mercedes-Benz already have issued some recalls.

On Thursday, Fiat Chrysler announced the recall of 112,000 vehicles including the 2009 Dodge Journey, the 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan, and Chrysler Town & Country minivans, and the 2009 Volkswagen Routan minivan, made by FCA, due to the same fault.

Mercedes-Benz’s recall involves 126,260 vehicles, while Honda said Wednesday that it is recalling 341,000 Accord cars from model years 2008-2010 to replace control units linked to failures in Continental systems. At least two injuries are attributed to the defect, according to Reuters.

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