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Hyundai, Kia Probed by US for Cars That Led to Four Deaths

The crashes were reported in the past six years.

Safety regulators in the U.S. are investigating air bags in certain Hyundai and Kia vehicles that failed to deploy in frontal collisions linked to four deaths and six injuries.

As many as 425,000 automobiles made by the South Korean manufacturers may be affected, according to an investigation report posted on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website. NHTSA is investigating whether vehicles made by other carmakers also may be at risk. Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. shares fell.

The crashes were reported in the past six years and involved Hyundai Sonatas and Sonata hybrids made in 2011, and Kia Forte and Kia Forte Koups made in 2012 and 2013. Hyundai on Feb. 27 recalled almost 155,000 Sonatas after determining that an electrical overstress failed to inflate the air bags during collisions. Hyundai is looking into the product supplier, ZF-TRW, for a possible cause for the electrical problem.

Air bags already are linked to the largest and most complex auto-related recall in U.S. history -- the one that ultimately led to Japan’s Takata Corp. to seek court protection from creditors after its devices were linked to at least 17 deaths. Unlike the Takata situation, which involved exploding air bags with shrapnel, the latest probe involves devices that failed to deploy at all.

Shares Fall

Shares of Hyundai declined 3.8% in Seoul, the biggest drop in more than two months. Kia lost 3.5%, the most in more than six months.

“This is just the start of an investigation -- we don’t know how much it will be expanded yet,” said Lee Hang-koo, a senior researcher at state-run Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade in Sejong City, South Korea. “It is surely bad news for Hyundai, which is already seeing sluggish sales in the U.S.”

The federal agency said it will work to determine whether any other automaker use air-bag control units that are the same or similar to those supplied by ZF-TRW, and whether those units behave the same way in similar crashes. A safety expert said that’s critical to determining how widespread the problem is and whether it’s just a Hyundai and Kia issue.

“If there is a component in the module that is used by other systems as well, that number could increase significantly,” Keith Friedman, automotive safety researcher at Friedman Research Corp. in Austin, Texas, said in a telephone interview Sunday. “If it has to do with the way this particular module has been manufactured, it could be localized to these particular vehicles.”

Automakers Cooperating

The Korean companies said they’re cooperating in the probe. Hyundai is “announcing this recall now to ensure the safety of our customers,” the company said in a statement. Kia said it will work closely with NHTSA, including monitoring crash reports and conduct more crash tests as needed.

The Sonatas and Sonata hybrids made in 2011 that were sold in Hyundai’s home market of South Korea don’t have ZF-TRW air bags, said Koh Sung-woo, deputy director at the country’s transport ministry. About 30,000 Kia Forte cars produced in South Korea have ZF-TRW air bags, though those have different ways of deploying air bags than in the U.S. cars, he said. The ministry will wait for the result of the U.S. probe and see if there are any similar consumer complaints in South Korea, he said.

ZF-TRW was formed when closely held German company ZF Friedrichshafen AG bought U.S.-based TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. for more than $12 billion in 2015.

Takata last month agreed to pay as much as $650 million to settle claims in 44 states and the District of Columbia for defective air bags that can explode in car crashes, sending metal shards flying. The company has recalled millions of air bags, the largest in history, that had been linked to the deaths and spurred lawsuits leading to more than $1 billion in settlements from automakers including Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Subaru Corp., Mazda Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and BMW AG.

Last week, U.S. consumers filed class-action complaints in Miami federal court to recover costs against units of General Motors and Volkswagen as well as Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Fiat Chrysler. The complaints allege that the automakers deceived the public about the defects and associated dangers.

By Michelle Kaske and Naureen S. Malik

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