Easily stolen Hyundais and Kias should be recalled

A coalition of attorneys general for 17 states and the District of Columbia on Thursday called for a federal recall of Hyundai and Kia vehicles that they say are unsafe and too easy to steal.

The attorneys general called for the recall “following the companies’ continued failure to take adequate steps to address the alarming rate of theft of their vehicles,” a release from California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is leading the coalition, said.

In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the coalition requested a recall of “unsafe” Hyundai and Kia vehicles manufactured between 2011 and 2022 “whose easily bypassed ignition switches and lack of engine immobilizers made them particularly vulnerable to theft.”

The vehicles in question, 2015-2019 Hyundai and Kia models, such as the Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson and the Kia Forte and Sportage, when equipped with turn-key ignitions — as opposed to cars that only require a button to be pushed to start — are roughly twice as likely to be stolen as other vehicles of a similar age. Many of these vehicles lack some of the basic auto theft prevention technology included in most other vehicles, even in those years, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, an industry group that tracks insurance statistics.

NHTSA responded that this isn’t the sort of thing for which the agency could demand a recall.

“This particular matter involves intentional criminal conduct under the review of law enforcement authorities,” the auto safety agency said in a statement. “However, since last year, NHTSA has repeatedly met with Hyundai and Kia to discuss the causes contributing to the theft vulnerability, review the scope of different software and hardware in the affected models, and receive regular updates on the companies’ action plans.”

These models became the subject of a viral social media trend in which thieves filmed themselves and others stealing Hyundai and Kia vehicles and taking them for a drive. In some parts of the country, the problem became so bad that some insurance companies refused to write new policies on these Hyundai and Kia models in places where thefts had become extremely common.

The models in question don’t have electronic immobilizers, which rely on a computer chip in the car and another in the key that communicates to confirm that the key belongs to that vehicle. Without the right key, an immobilizer should do just that — stop the car from moving.

“Hyundai and Kia announced that they will initiate voluntary service campaigns to offer software updates for certain vehicles with this starting-system vulnerability. Unfortunately, however, this is an insufficient response to the problem and does not adequately remedy the safety concerns facing vehicle owners and the public,” the letter to the NHSTA said.

In a statement Friday, Hyundai said it is “committed to ensuring the quality and integrity of our products.”

“A subset of Hyundai vehicles on the road in the US today — primarily ‘base trim’ or entry-level models — are not equipped with push-button ignitions and immobilizing anti-theft devices,” Hyundai said. “It is important to clarify that an engine immobilizer is an anti-theft device and these vehicles are fully compliant with federal anti-theft requirements. Thieves discovered a specific method by which to bypass the vehicles’ security features and then documented and promoted their exploits on TikTok and other social media channels.”

The automaker went on to say that it has taken “comprehensive action” to assist customers. That action includes, in part, standardizing engine immobilizers on all vehicles as of November 2021 and rolling out a software upgrade to “prevent the method of theft involved, two months ahead of schedule.”

Kia said Friday that it “remains very focused on this issue and we continue to take action to address the concerns these Attorneys General have raised. We are committed to working with them and law enforcement agencies across their respective states to combat car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it.”

Kia added that it will “continue to roll out a free, enhanced security software upgrade to restrict the unauthorized operation of vehicle ignition systems and we are also providing steering wheel locks for impacted owners at no cost to them.”

“To date, Kia has contacted over two million owners and lessees of Kia vehicles to let them know of the availability of the software upgrade, and more than 165,000 eligible customers have already had the upgrade installed,” the automaker said. “Furthermore, in addition to supplying more than 39,000 free steering wheel locks to over 275 law enforcement agencies across the country for distribution to impacted Kia owners, we have shipped nearly 8,000 locks directly to impacted owners as well. We will continue to provide additional free locks as they are needed.”

The two South Korean automakers have created a software patch to fix the problem, the automakers have said. Hyundai and Kia operate as separate companies in the United States, but the Hyundai Motor Group owns a large stake in Kia, and various Hyundai and Kia models share much of their engineering.

The patch will be installed free of charge on models that need it, with software that requires an actual key in the ignition to turn the vehicle on. The software will also block the car from being started after the doors have been locked using the key fob remote control. The vehicle will need to be unlocked before it can be started.

The software also extends the length of the alarm sound from 30 seconds to a full minute. Hyundai dealers will also affix window stickers stating that the vehicle has anti-theft software installed.

“The bottom line is, Kia’s and Hyundai’s failure to install standard safety features on many of their vehicles have put vehicle owners and the public at risk,” Attorney General Bonta said. “We now ask the federal government to require these companies to correct their mistakes through a nationwide recall and help us in our continued efforts to protect the public from these unsafe vehicles.”

Recalls are ordered by NHTSA or, much more commonly, undertaken by automakers to correct safety-related defects. The attorneys general’s letter asserts that the ease of theft of these Hyundai and Kia vehicles constitutes a safety hazard and the vehicles fail to meet federal standards for theft prevention.

“Moreover, thieves have driven these vehicles recklessly, speeding and performing wild stunts and causing numerous crashes, at least eight deaths, and significant injuries,” the letter said.

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