When you first sit in a car’s seat, what do you think about? I’m guessing how soft it is, how much lumbar support it provides, or how close it sits to the dashboard. I doubt you give very little thought to the number of sensors under your tush.
This system of sensors is known as the Occupant Classification System (OCS). I would have gone with butt sensor system (BSS), but maybe that’s why I don’t have a job in marketing. Anyway the OCS is there to detect if an adult or child is sitting in the front seat. Airbags are dangerous to children and need to be turned off, whether a child should ever be in the front seat is a discussion for another day.
Think of the OCS as a sophisticated on / off switch that you
don't have to aren’t supposed to have to think about. But that’s not the case for Nissan and Infiniti owners.
How OCS Works
When you park yourself in a seat, a pressure sensor measures your weight. The OCS doesn’t just detect weight, however. It also reads your seat’s position (distance from dash), if your seat belt is on (it always is, right?), and how much tension is on the seat belt.
All this data is passed to an Electronic Control Unit (ECU), which then sends information to the airbag system.
If the seat is empty, has a bag of groceries, or is occupied by a child, you’ll see a yellow, dashboard (or console) light indicating the passenger airbag is disabled.
Side note: it’s normal for all warning lights to come on when first starting the car as part of the start-up process. They usually stay on for 7-seconds, or so.
Once an adult sits down the system is activated, airbags can combine OCS data with split-second information from crash sensors and determine if the airbag should deploy at full speed, partial speed, or not at all. Whatever will keep you safest, statistically.
A Quick Note on Newer OCS Technologies
Even with all that data, the OCS can get it wrong. There are numerous complaints from smaller-than-average adults who say their OCS won’t turn on the airbags when they sit down. And then, of course, the opposite is true with larger-than-average kids – an alarming thought.
To get around this, some modern / fancy cars are experimenting with optical sensors, plus respiration and heartbeat monitors.1
Airbag Warning Light Always On or Flashing
A common complaint from Nissan and Infiniti owners is their airbag “disabled” warning light is always on, or it flashes on / off as they drive. The sensors simply don’t appear to be working.
And with adults in the front-passenger seat, it’s disheartening to see that airbag off light.
Nissan first issued an OCS recall back in 2013 for 82,000 vehicles. At the time, the automaker said the sensors “may have been manufactured out of specification” and could be permanently suppressed.
A year later, in 2014, Nissan issued a much larger OCS recall for 1 million vehicles. Not only was this an admission that the problem was more widespread than they let on, but they also admitted that the fix for the previous recall never worked.
“Nissan says a combination of factors could cause the problem, such as high engine vibration at idle when the seat is initially empty and then becomes occupied. Even the posture of the passenger could cause the air bag to deactivate.”
A third recall came in November 2015. Nissan placed the blame elsewhere on the supply chain:
“[the supply chain] caused incorrect occupant classification control unit parts to be installed on vehicles that received the incorrect part after the March 2014 recall was completed. There are also vehicles that were not part of the March recall but received the wrong part from other repairs.”
Vehicles involved in the various recalls
Parts unavailable, fixes not working
Depending on how you look at it, recalls are good news – it means Nissan is acknowledging a safety issue exists and is responsible to find a solution.
However, the problem is the lack of a working solution for millions of owners. To date, owners report they are still waiting for an adequate supply of repair parts and, in some cases, have been told to disconnect the airbag until a part can be secured.
Some have noted the importance of telling your local dealership that the “yellow passenger airbag light is on even when an adult is in the passenger seat.”
Airbag Warning Light Lawsuit
Shortly before the third recall, a lawsuit was filed blaming the automaker for failing to come up with a solution.
The lawsuit, Matthew Senci v. Nissan North America, Inc., said through warranty claims, owner complaints, and the early-2013 recall, it’s clear the automaker has known about these issues since “at least” 2012. Yet, there doesn’t appear to be a solution and the damaged OCS makes the car unsafe and hurts its resale value.
On the Record
“Nissan issued recall on the passenger side airbag sensor that disengages the airbag when a grown adult is seated in the passenger seat. My car was recalled and "supposedly" fixed, but two separate incidences have occurred where the passenger airbag light indicating the airbag is off when a person is seated there has occurred.”
“My 2015 Altima airbag lights were on, I brought the car in for servicing on December 23rd to cover the recall. On the 29th with wife in car airbag light came back on dashboard. Sensor does not work properly in seat. Wife weighs over 120 pounds. I looked online and found many other people have the same issue with the recall, their car never receives the update and customers have to go back in repeatedly and the problem is never resolved. So airbags won't deploy now when my wife is a passenger.”
“My passenger airbag turns off even when a full size adult of the proper weight is in the front seat. I received a recall notice for this on June 1st 2016. I have continued to try to schedule service for this recall, however, the dealer has notified me that Nissan has still not made the part available to them to fix this issue.”
“There already was a recall to fix this problem of the Passenger Airbag Off light being on when there was a passenger in the seat. We saw the problem before the recall was applied to our car. But since the recall, the car keeps doing this occasionally when my wife is sitting in the seat. Sometimes it stays on for a few minutes then turns off. Most times it does work like normal. But it's still randomly happening.”
“The front passenger side air bag warning indicator kept indicating "off", regardless if the passenger seat was occupied. The vehicle was taken to the dealer more than 4 times and they provided no repair solution. The dealer reset the code more than once and reset the sensor, but the failure recurred.”
“When an adult passenger sits in the front passenger seat the airbag dash light does not go off to indicate that air bag is functional! this is while in motion, stationary, and can sporadically work as it should but I am still concerned that the system is malfunctioning!”
OK, Now What?
Maybe you've experienced this problem. Maybe you're concerned you will soon. Whatever the reason, you can help make sure it gets the attention it deserves.
Below are a handful of steps you can take to make sure this problem gets the attention it needs.
File Your Complaint at CarComplaints.com
CarComplaints.com is a free site dedicated to uncovering problem trends and informing owners about potential issues with their cars. Major class action law firms use this data when researching cases.
Notify the Center for Auto Safety
The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) is a pro-consumer organization that researches auto safety issues & often compels the US government to do the right thing through lobbying & lawsuits.
Report a Safety Concern to NHTSA
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the US agency with the authority to conduct vehicle defect investigations & force recalls. Their focus is on safety-related issues.
Spread the Word
Social media is all the rage these days. And for good reason – it can help spread a message quickly. So get out there and start spreading this page.