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17 states urge recall of Kia and Hyundai cars following spike in thefts

Attorneys general in 17 states are urging 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 U.S. over the last decade lack engine immobilizers, a standard feature on most cars that prevents the engine from starting unless the key is present.

The vulnerability of some Hyundai and Kia vehicles emerged in TikTok videos that show how to steal the cars using a USB cord and a screwdriver. The thefts are linked to at least 14 reported crashes and eight fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The social media-inspired thefts have sometimes ended in tragedy, with the NHTSA blaming the stolen car trend for 14 reported crashes and eight deaths. In October, a police commissioner said that a crash in Buffalo, New York, that left four teenagers dead may have been linked to the TikTok challenge. 

"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," California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. "Instead of taking responsibility with appropriate corrective action, these carmakers have chosen instead to pass this risk onto consumers and our communities."

In Los Angeles, thefts of Hyundai and Kia cars surged by 85% in 2022 and accounted for roughly 20% of stolen cars in the city, Bonta's office said.

Hyundai and Kia recall cars over fire risk 00:23

Bonta and the other attorneys general sent a letter on Thursday to NHTSA requesting a nationwide recall. The letter also was signed by attorneys general from Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.

Last month, nearly two dozen attorneys general from 22 states plus the District of Columbia pressed Hyundai and Kia to take immediate action to correct the public safety issue. 

Kia said in a statement that it is focused on the issue, "and we continue to take action to address the concerns these attorneys general have raised." The automaker says more than 165,000 customers have had the software installed, and over 2 million owners have been contacted about it. The company says the vehicles comply with federal safety standards, so a recall isn't necessary.

Hyundai also said its vehicles comply with federal anti-theft requirements. The company says it rolled out free anti-theft software updates to prevent the thefts two months ahead of schedule, but it did not answer a question about how many vehicles have received it. "We are communicating with NHTSA on our many actions to assist our customers," the company statement said.

The letter adds to the growing pressure on the South Korea-based automakers. Multiple cities, including St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, have already sued the automakers.

Highest theft rate

In September, the Highway Loss Data Institute, a unit of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that Hyundai and Kia cars without immobilizers had a vehicle theft claim rate of 2.18 per 1,000 insured vehicle years. The rest of the industry combined had a rate of 1.21.

Hyundai and Kia announced in February that they would provide software updates for vehicles that require the key to be in the ignition switch to turn the car on. The change also updates the cars' theft alarm software to extend the length of an alarm from 30 seconds to 1 minute. About 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 monitored closely by NHTSA.

The agency said the Hyundai and Kia thefts involve criminal conduct that falls under the jurisdiction of law enforcement. Even so, NHTSA said it has met with the automakers to discuss theft vulnerability as well as software and hardware in the affected models.

NHTSA faces criticism

The agency said it is getting regular updates on the companies' plans. "NHTSA will continue to monitor this issue, spread awareness of further updates to local authorities and lend 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 a company's internal service campaign. In a recall, NHTSA requires quarterly reports and monitors whether the recall repairs solve the problem, he said. The agency also requires automakers to notify each owner by mail.

"We won't know how many are on the road with the problem" with a company service campaign, Brooks said. "We're not going to know ... if notification went out properly."

Brooks said NHTSA has been slow to react to auto thefts despite the stolen Hyundais and Kias causing safety problems on the roads.

Hyundai has said all models produced after November 1, 2021, have immobilizers as standard equipment.

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