Last September automakers began installing automatic airbag shutoff systems in 2004-model cars and trucks. Twenty percent of all new vehicles sold in the 2004 model year have them. By Sept. 1, 2006, all new vehicles sold in the United States must have the system.
In March, Nissan North America Inc. recalled 13,700 Quest minivans after complaints of the airbags being off when they should have been on. An indicator light illuminates when the passenger-side airbag is shut off.
To repair these vehicles, dealerships must remove the passenger seat from the vehicle and ship it in a special container to a repair center. While the seat is out, the vehicle cannot be driven.
Nissan says the repairs take about a week.
The automaker is arranging for owners to rent vehicles while their vans are being repaired.
Nissan would not say how much the recall will cost. Nissan spokesman Eric Booth said the airbag supplier, which he would not identify, is paying part of the recall cost.
Several owners of the Nissan Titan pickup also have reported malfunctions with the airbag cutoff systems, but no recall has been issued.
About 50 owners of the 2004 Hyundai Elantra have complained to the company that the passenger-side airbag system won't turn on when the passenger is seated.
Hyundai engineers in Korea have been studying the problem since February but don't know how to repair it. Hyundai Motor America recommends that owners of the affected cars tell passengers to sit in the back seat or else trade in their car and purchase a different model.
Hyundai would not identify its airbag supplier.
About a dozen owners of some Jaguar, Jeep, Lexus and Toyota models also have complained to NHTSA about defective airbags. Those complaints generally note that the system turned off the passenger airbag after failing to differentiate between a child and small adult.
Major suppliers include Delphi Automotive Systems, TRW Automotive, Takata Corp., Autoliv Inc., Siemens VDO Automotive and Key Safety Systems. Inc.
NHTSA estimates that it costs between $25 and $130 to install smart airbag sensors.
Ironically, the government's airbag rule may no longer be necessary.
Deaths of children caused by airbags have dropped from a high of 32 in 1998 to none so far this year. Safety experts cite two likely reasons:
1. Automakers designed airbags that inflate with 20 percent to 35 percent less force.
2. Parents have gotten the message that children are safest when riding in the back seat.