Kia and Hyundai settled a class-action lawsuit accusing their cars of being too easy to steal

Last month, 17 US attorney generals called for a recall of the vehicles
Kia and Hyundai settled a class-action lawsuit accusing their cars of being too easy to steal
Photo: Cheney Orr (Reuters)
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Kia and Hyundai have agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit accusing the automakers of failing to install basic anti-theft measures.

The settlement of more than $200 million, announced on May 18, seeks to offer reparations to owners of vehicles vulnerable to theft because they lack an immobilizer, a device that prevents the engine from starting up unless the right key is inserted. The issue is estimated to affect 9 million vehicles, half of them Hyundais and half of them Kias.

“The agreement also offers upgrades to fix the lack of immobilizer at the heart of the issue, as well as payments to those who are not eligible for the upgrade,” said Steve Berman, managing partner at law firm Hagens Berman and chair of the lead committee representing affected vehicle owners in the lawsuit.

Last month, 17 attorneys general called on the government to remove from the US easy-to-steal vehicles manufactured between 2011 and 2022 for violating federal motor vehicle safety standards.

In a joint letter (pdf) to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the attorneys called for the cars to be pulled from US roads due to their vulnerable ignition switches and absence of engine immobilizers, which make them attractive to thieves.

“Due to this vulnerability in their starting systems, the vehicles can be hotwired and stolen in a matter of minutes, presenting a serious safety issue nationwide,” the letter reads.

Which states want a recall?

The letter, 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, noted that at least eight people have already died as a result of car thefts involving Kia and Hyundai.

Connecticut attorney general William Tong decried the rate at which the vehicles are encouraging reckless “driving and criminal activity that has resulted in injuries and deaths.” He stated in a statement on Apr. 20: “I’ve called on Hyundai and Kia to fix this, quickly, and without nickel and diming their customers. They’ve failed and we can’t wait any longer. It’s time for the federal government to step in and force a recall.”

A car theft trend spread on TikTok, following the viral 2021 “Kia Challenge” video that showed how to easily to ignite certain models of Kia and Hyundai cars using only a USB cord and a screwdriver. Although TikTok took down the videos each time they were uploaded on its platform, many users simply downloaded them on their phones.

NHTSA said the Hyundai and Kia thefts involve criminal conduct that falls under the jurisdiction of law enforcement. NHTSA has met with the car manufacturers to discuss the car security issue, software and hardware in the affected models. It says: “The companies have been working with law enforcement agencies to provide more than 26,000 steering wheel locks since November 2022 to 77 law enforcement agencies in 12 states.”

The car theft has snowballed

But that has not curbed the thefts. According to Seattle’s city attorney’s office, there was a 363% increase in the theft of Kias, and a 503% increase in the thefts of Hyundais between 2021 and 2022. “Kia and Hyundai chose to cut corners and cut costs at the expense of their customers and the public,” Seattle city attorney Ann Davison said in a statement in January. “As a result, our police force has had to tackle a huge rise in vehicle theft and related problems with already stretched resources. Now Seattle taxpayers must shoulder the burden of the increase in theft.”

Last October, 1,000 Kias were stolen in Chicago. The rate of theft of Kias increased by 916% from January 2022 to January 2023 in Portland, Oregon. Hyundai thefts jumped by 768% in the same period. About 70% of the cars stolen in Milwaukee were from the two car brands in 2022.

Kia and Hyundai tried to suppress bad press in February by developing theft deterrent software for millions of their vehicles that lack an immobilizer, for free, but that did little to stop the thefts.

This story was updated with news of the class action lawsuit settlement reached on May 18.