Attorneys general in 17 states on Thursday urged the federal government to recall millions of Kia and Hyundai cars because they are too easy to steal, a response to a sharp increase in thefts fueled by a viral social media challenge.
Some Kia and Hyundai cars sold in the United States over the past decade do not have an engine immobilizer, a standard feature on most cars that prevents the engine from starting unless the key is present.
Videos trending on social media service TikTok show how people can start Kia and Hyundai models using only a screwdriver and a USB cable. In Los Angeles, thefts of Hyundai and Kia cars are set to increase by nearly 85% in 2022, according to the California Attorney General’s Office, which now accounts for 20% of all car thefts in the city.
These social media-inspired thefts have often ended in tragedy, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributing 14 accidents and eight deaths to the stolen car trend. In October, a police commissioner said that a car accident in Buffalo, New York, that killed four teenagers may be linked to the TikTok challenge. Buffalo police said a total of six teens were in a speeding Kia that crashed in the incident. The car had been reported stolen.
Hyundai also said that its vehicles comply with federal anti-theft requirements. The company says it rolled out the software upgrade to prevent theft two months ahead of schedule, but did not answer questions on how many vehicles had received it. “We are in dialogue with NHTSA on several of our actions to assist our customers,” the company said in the statement.
The letter adds to mounting pressure on South Korea-based automakers. Several cities, including St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, have already sued the automakers.
In September, the Highway Loss Data Institute, a unit of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that Hyundai and Kia cars without immobilizers The vehicle theft claim rate was 2.18 per 1,000 insured vehicle years. The rate for the rest of the industry combined was 1.21.
Hyundai and Kia announced in February that they would provide software updates for vehicles that require the key in the ignition switch to start the car. The change also updates the cars’ theft alarm software to increase the alarm duration from 30 seconds to 1 minute. Around 3.8 million Hyundai cars and 4.5 million Kia cars are eligible for the software update.
But the service campaign by the affiliated Korean automakers is not a recall, which comes with reporting requirements and is closely monitored by the NHTSA.
The agency said the Hyundai and Kia thefts involved criminal conduct that falls within the jurisdiction of law enforcement. Nevertheless, NHTSA said it has met with automakers to discuss the theft vulnerability as well as software and hardware in affected models.
The agency said it is getting regular updates about the plans of the companies. “NHTSA will continue to monitor this issue, spread awareness to local authorities with further updates, and provide its expertise in efforts to strengthen motor vehicle safety,” the agency said.
But Michael Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said there is no way for the public to track the effectiveness of the company’s internal service campaign. In a recall, NHTSA requires quarterly reports and monitors whether the recalled repairs address the problem, he said. The agency also requires vehicle manufacturers to notify each owner by mail.
“We’ll never know how many people are on the street with the problem,” Brooks said. “If the notification goes out properly, we will not know whether the recall is effective or not.”
Brooks said the NHTSA has been slow to react to auto theft, even though stolen Hyundais and Kias are causing safety problems on the roads.
Hyundai has said that all models produced after November 1, 2021, have immobilizers as standard equipment.