Kia and the Breaking Brake Switch that’s Been Broken

Remember Lauri Ulvestad? She was the unfortunate owner of a 2011 KIA Sorrento, which took her on a wild 60-mile ride, at speeds topping out at 115 mph, around sedans and 18-wheelers along the north-bound corridor Interstate 35 in Harrison County, Missouri. The Missouri State Highway Patrol, which escorted Ulvestad until she was able to bring the vehicle to a stop, captured the event with an on-board camera.

At the time, the automaker said that it could not duplicate the event, and that it was “an isolated incident.” But, it bought Ulvestad’s Kia double-quick.

Well, today it turned out that the Ulvestad incident wasn’t so isolated after all. Kia and Hyundai announced that they were recalling 1.9 million vehicles from the 2006-2011 model years for a brake switch failure. The long list of vehicles includes: Hyundai Accent, Elantra, Genesis Coupe, Santa Fe, Sonata, Tucson and Veracruz vehicles and Kias Optima, Rondo, Sedona, Sorento, Soul and Sportage.

According to KIA’s Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Report:

"The stop lamp switch" (also known as a brake switch) "on vehicles in the subject recall population may experience intermittent switch point contact. This condition could potentially result in intermittent operation of the push-button start feature, intermittent ability to remove the vehicle's shifter from the Park position, illumination of the 'ESC' (Electronic Stability Control) indicator lamp in the instrument cluster, intermittent interference with operation of the cruise control feature, or intermittent operation of the stop lamps. Intermittent operation of the stop lamps increases the risk of a crash."

How does this description square with Lauri Ulvestad’s experience? Let’s see:

-          Vehicle in cruise control? Check

-          Unable to disengage? Check.

-          Inoperable gear shift? Check

-          Push button ignition malfunctioning? Check

 

And, for the coup de grace: Ulvestad had had her stop lamp/brake switch replaced a couple of weeks before the event, because she could not shift the vehicle out of gear. In other words, her experience was not an isolated event. This recall represents the full Ulvestad.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because Kia/Hyundai recalled misbehaving brake switches on April 15, 2009 to bring the curtain down on a NHTSA Preliminary Investigation which opened in January that year. According to investigation documents in the public file, Hyundai-Kia reported few crashes but more than 44,000 warranty claims for brake switch replacements. In announcing the recall, the automaker reported that the stop lamp switches, supplied by INFAC Corporation, might have been damaged during assembly at the supplier, causing the plunger within the threaded hollow shaft in the switch to stick. And how did the sticky plunger affect the vehicle? The ESC light might come on indicating ESC off; the shifter doesn’t work; the brake lights may not come on when the brake pedal is depressed, or stay on after the brake pedal is released, oh, and the cruise control might not deactivate.

The fix for recalls 09V-130 and 09V-0122 was to replace the stop lamp switch with a newly designed version.

Here we are four years later. The Ulvestad incident occurred on August 19, 2012. On November 1, 2012, Transport Canada opened an investigation into nine unidentified complaints for vehicles that were outside the population of Hyundais recalled there in 2009.

On December 17, Safety Research & Strategies asked NHTSA if the agency was investigating this incident specifically.

The agency responded with one of those wonderfully content-free statements:

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to ensuring the safety of vehicles on America’s roads. The agency is aware of the incident, is monitoring complaints and other data closely, and will take appropriate action as necessary.”

(At first, we thought that meant "no," but now we're thinking secret investigation.) On January 10, Transport Canada opened an investigation requesting additional information. Then, according to the automaker’s defect report, “ODI requested that Kia review the VOQs in the NHTSA database. In discussions with ODI, Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center indicated that any action taken in Canada would involve a corollary action in the United States.”

So, Hyundai-Kia is going to replace these switches with new switches. Explain to us again how this solves the functional safety problem? Switches fail. They’ve failed and been replaced in Kias and Hyundais for several years now. Where is the failsafe? A bum brake switch should not be able to render a car uncontrollable. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. We’ll repeat it as many times as necessary, when is NHTSA going to regulate the functional safety of vehicle electronics?

Lauri Ulvestad was at highway speed. She could not turn off her cruise control, she could not shift out of drive and she could not turn the car off. Is the failsafe supposed to be a police escort and the grace of God?

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