The focus of this latest case is on the airbag inflators in some 500,000 older Chrysler Town and Country minivans and Kia Optima sedans, all of which come from ARC Automotive. While the Takata case looks at problems stemming from the engineering and production process, the ARC investigation focuses on the age of the inflators.
As TDB explains, airbag inflators are essentially what the military refers to as shaped charges, sort of like Claymores (for fans of the Call of Duty series). In combat, they blow up in a specific direction, protecting those behind the explosion, although in the case of airbags, the explosion "[creates] a precise rush of hot gases" that inflate the bags.
NHTSA's worry is that with the increased average age of today's vehicles, years and years of being bounced, jolted, and shaken about and exposed to often-radical temperature changes have altered the nature of the explosives in these vehicles, causing too big of an explosion.
"It may be a reasonable assumption that as these things age they deteriorate," analyst George Peterson told TheDetroitBureau.com. NHTSA boss Mark Rosekind backed up aging angle. "Cars are lasting on the road a lot longer than ever before," Rosekind told TDB, adding that seals could start breaking down. "Is aging now an issue? That's part of the investigation going on."
"It may be a reasonable assumption that as these things age they deteriorate." – Analyst George Peterson
NHTSA has only identified two "incidents" so far, although according to Center for Auto Safety Director Clarence Ditlow, there's genuine concern that there could be additional unidentified cases. "Could we have missed more? That could be the case," Ditlow told TDB, citing the misidentified deaths in the Takata investigation. Ditlow was quick to point out that, even in older vehicles, airbags are much more likely to protect than harm. "No one is saying you should disable your airbags," the safety advocate told TDB. "You're far more likely to be helped than hurt by one if they go off."
At least one automaker, meanwhile, has already been advised of the investigation by NHTSA and is checking its airbags. "It appears there is more to the airbag story than just Takata," Hyundai Motor America boss Dave Zuchowski told TheDetroitBureau.com. The South Korean automaker, Kia's parent company, was warned by NHTSA of "the potential residual [problem] of older vehicles with original airbags," and is in the process of checking whether it's used any of ARC's inflators. It's unclear if other automakers have taken similar measures.