By on April 12, 2019

Hyundai passenger occupant detection system (pods), Image: HyundaiDavid writes:


Almost every rental car I’ve driven, regardless of make or model, in the last 18 to 24 months, particularly in the Bay Area and especially if the car has 20,000 or more miles, has the passenger detection system for turning the airbag on/off broken. Ford, GM, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, it doesn’t matter. Sedan, SUV, sports car, again it doesn’t matter.

The first time it happened was in a Malibu. I’m driving with an alarm going off and I keep scanning the dashboard for a message or idiot light. Pulled over and checked the doors were all closed and trunk closed. Then I noticed the blinking light for the passenger seat seatbelt not being buckled and that a passenger is detected in the front seat. Nothing was in the seat, not even a piece of paper. After I secured the seatbelt for the invisible passenger the alarm stopped. I had to drive the car that way for the rest of my trip.

This has repeated itself in almost every rental I’ve had since. The most recent frustration was a 2017 Kia Optima I just had, which again required me to drive around with the passenger seatbelt buckled for the invisible passenger.

Does this mean that my personal vehicles will eventually befall the same fate? Is there something that rental car drivers are doing that abuse this system? Does California have a different standard? What gives?

Sajeev answers:

Passenger Occupant Detection Systems (PODS) ensure airbags deploy with the correct amount of force for the corresponding weight of the airbag’s recipient. I’ve noticed that passengers less than 100 lbs will trigger the “air bag off” warning, with no warning for zero (or heavier than 100 lbs) passengers: while every application tweaks the parameters, that’s the gist of it.

And then all the recalls found me: Audi, ChevyToyota, BMW, Nissan, Hyundai, KIA, even Saturn and Roush!

Known causes were liquid spillage and wiring harnesses physically failing from passenger seat use. And maybe, possibly, here’s another reason to stop stabbing your knee into the stupid seat cushion when grabbing something in the back seat? Look at the size of the PODS bladder in the above photo!

But all that’s in the past, so your (seemingly random) sampling of rental vehicles suggests another round of recalls is needed! I suspect there’s more “passenger seat turnover” in Bay Area rental cars than less congested parts of the country. Perhaps any Uber likely to hold more than 2 customers at a time is also affected?

I doubt this is a problem with the magnitude of Takata airbag recalls, as only vehicles with poorly designed wiring/routing, precisely-spilled beverages and/or a rental car amounts of “passenger seat turnover” are likely susceptible. What say you, Best and Brightest?

[Image: Hyundai]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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22 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Big Problem with PODS?...”

  • avatar

    Have not had the issue on any rental cars, instead, I have the heated seat not work on 5 of my 6 cars in the fleet, driver side which is on a hell of a lot more are fine go figure. My guess w the rental cars is the driver tosses their bag on the front seat.

    • 0 avatar

      I am thinking it may have something to do with the frequency of cleaning. Rental employees have to vacuum these cars out constantly. They probably just can’t help kneeling on the seats from time to time.

      • 0 avatar

        I think SPPPP has the reason for the season. They also probably push the vacuum nozzles hard into the seats to access dirt between the upper and lower cushions. Then you’ve got solvents that good rental companies use to eliminate the horrid food and bodily fluid stains on returned cars.*

        *none of this would explain why Enterprise rental cars might have non-functioning occupant sensors.

        • 0 avatar

          “They also probably push the vacuum nozzles hard into the seats to access dirt between the upper and lower cushions.”

          Hah! You’re lucky these days if they’ve even removed the obvious trash from the cars. Heck, I rented one car recently with a completely untouched spot of dried vomit in the back seat…picked up at night and didn’t happen to look back there until the following morning, 100+ miles away from the airport.

  • avatar

    Kneeling in the seat is a big cause of seat heater issues – particularly with giant Americans nowadays…have had this wreck seat heaters before.

    Don’t really know about the PODS system malfunctions…but not beyond the realm of possibility.

  • avatar

    and I’m sure our ever-growing posteriors don’t help.

  • avatar

    Never had a problem other than finding out a passenger that is certainly too tall for a child seat is not heavy enough to activate the airbag.

    Once had that happen with niece who was in the 5th Grade!

    • 0 avatar

      I thought 5th graders weren’t supposed to activate the airbags? Don’t they say 12-13 years old before riding up front if the airbag can’t be disabled?

      • 0 avatar

        It was a single cab truck.

        • 0 avatar

          Right, but all I’m saying is that the typical 5th grader is small and light enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the airbags shut off when they ride up front.

          Back before the weight sensors, I remember my brothers being told that they needed to be 12-13 years old (7th grade) before they could sit in front. Maybe that’s different now.

  • avatar

    Technology and automation are supposed to improve our lives, and yet too often we have to baby-sit, coddle, and bend over to accommodate systems that have not been thought through or executed with integrity. Aka “cheap”.

    • 0 avatar

      Makes you feel confident about the push for autonomous vehicles, eh? I don’t even want “driver aids” in my vehicle. Car decides to jerk the wheel out of my hand? No thanks.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll never forget a new Focus I rented for a week, probably in ’12. While I didn’t know why it happened at the time, it evidently had new software to correct for torque steer. When I quickly accelerated while turning after a stop, and I corrected for some torque steer, it then decided my correction was the actual torque steer. It jerked the wheel in the opposite direction, and when I corrected for that, it again jerked it in the OTHER direction. This went on for a few cycles, and for the rest of the week, had me on-edge when accelerating quickly while making a sharp turn. “No thanks” is right!

        • 0 avatar

          I was also wondering about the torque steer in the last-gen Focus. I found the torque steer quite fierce and erratic … which didn’t make sense because the engine didn’t have much torque! Maybe a slow-reacting computer system was to blame. If so, “boo!” on Ford for the half-engineered kludge.

  • avatar

    I’ve never had this problem with personal or rental cars. My son owns my old 2004 Toyota Camry which is approaching 190,000 miles (it was one of the first cars with the sensors) and it hasn’t been an issue.

    Some cars use weight sensors where the seat mounts to the floor rails — I would think this design is more robust than the bladder in the seat cushion.

  • avatar

    Classic Type I/Type II Error situation – unintended consequences and so forth.

    Last time I was current, best practice for installing a child safety seat called for putting your knee and all your body weight into the child safety seat while tensioning the seatbelt – to obtain an essentially rigid connection. With the safety seats I was familiar with, this would apply considerable force to the seat cushion in a few fairly focused spots. I’d generally opt for installing the child safety seat in the rear seat, but the point of the airbag sensor was to allow for first row?

    So I can see how that bladder could see some abuse. Could even be as simple as me (as the passenger) sitting on my large pointy car keys as we are pulling away from the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.

    Anyway, if you buy a can of radiator stop-leak from a reputable provider, it should seal that bladder right up (or maybe not – lol).

  • avatar

    PODS Bladder sounds like yet another personal issue to worry about as we age.

  • avatar

    Odd – I have rented more than 100 cars in the past three years and never had this issue. Very weird.

    What rental company?

    • 0 avatar

      AHA! You may have asked the right question. Since there ere several makes mentioned, it can’t be a common problem with all of them – unless it’s one rental company, possibly one specific location, that uses trained monkeys for maintenance, instead of the usual Bachelor of Arts holders.

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