Airbag makers can’t catch a break. An incident that occurred last year, which resulted in one motorist fatality, is now leading to the recall of a little over 54,000 Volvos, as reported by Reuters over the weekend. The recall affects 2001-2003 model year Volvo S80 and S60 “light vehicles.” This time, though, it’s not Takata that’s getting grief but Germany’s ZF.
In contrast to the expansive Takata recall that spanned nearly twenty automakers and is linked to 26 casualties, this ZF Group recall has only been linked to one make, Volvo, and one casualty to date. Any loss of life, however small, is unfortunate and it’s good to read about Volvo and the NHTSA getting together and investigating the situation in a timely fashion. Well, timely if one considers the length of time it has taken to sort the Takata recalls.
The incident was first brought to ZF’s attention by Volvo in the summer of 2019, according to ZF. The recall itself published by NHTSA includes a timeline of events that traces back to an attorney letter sent to Volvo Cars USA detailing the alleged rupture. The accident in question remains undisclosed due to privacy concerns, and both Volvo Cars and the NHTSA declined to comment. We may not know for sure whether Volvo’s response was proactive or reactive, but the report clearly states that the attorney letter kicked off a series of inspections and technical meetings between all parties involved.
Of course, we would have expected a modestly rapid response from Volvo, it being one of those brands that we implicitly associate with safety. The oldest model years in question are going on two decades in operation. It’s possible that safety performance may degrade over time, but no motorist should be at risk of serious injury and/or death due to a malfunction of mechanisms put in place to preserve life. I know that sometimes, when idling at a light, or slowing to a stop in a quiet neighbourhood, I wonder how safe I’ll be in my own decades-old hatchback in the unfortunate event of an accident. And the answer, inevitably, is some variation of “not as much as I would like.”
Of course, there are a lot of variables that have to be taken into account in the operation of our beloved machines and in this case, it seems the defect is triggered by heat and humidity. The NHTSA’s report cites knowledge from field studies claiming to take into account weather data and vehicle-specific temperature data. Tellingly, it’s cars that are registered in Southern U.S. states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, among others.
The report concludes that heat and humidity in these areas, together with the decay and dust they produce, may increase pressure in the airbag inflator’s combustion chamber. This, in turn, can cause fragments of the inflator to shoot outwards during airbag deployment. High-speed shrapnel fragments are the last thing you want to come flying out of your airbag.
If any of our readers operate either of the Volvos cited in the recall in a hot and humid region — especially in the locations cited by the report — please check your VIN on NHTSA’s website and contact a Volvo dealer.