Hyundai-Kia and NHTSA Announce Software Fix for Deadly Theft Epidemic, but No Recall

Fourteen crashes, eight deaths, uninsurable vehicles and auto theft numbers through the roof – that’s the mayhem trailing traditionally keyed, unprotected Hyundai-Kias that appear to violate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention. But press releases from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the automaker describe the rollout of a software fix without a formal recall.

The crime wave was touched off in 2021, when car thieves in Milwaukee learned to take advantage of a vulnerability in MY 2010-2021 Hyundai and Kia vehicles with traditional metal keys. It began to build to crest in July when a video posted to TikTok demonstrated how to remove the steering column shroud, pull out the ignition cylinder, and using a USB cable, grip the ignition cylinder to twist it, starting the engine. The how-to video quickly went viral, with teenaged thieves posting their exploits under the hashtag “Kia Boys.” Police chiefs from Florida to California to Illinois reported increases in car thefts ranging from 85 to 800 percent. In October, the TikTok challenge was linked to the deaths of four teenagers who crashed a stolen Kia in Buffalo, New York.

Hyundai-Kia’s response after the pressure of numerous negative news stories, and apparently, some from NHTSA, is a free customer service campaign – not a recall – which combines warning stickers, longer alarms and a software patch. According to NHTSA, “the software updates the theft alarm software logic to extend the length of the alarm sound from 30 seconds to one minute and requires the key to be in the ignition switch to turn the vehicle on.” Hyundai’s press release provides a few more details:

“The software upgrade modifies certain vehicle control modules on Hyundai vehicles equipped with standard “turn-key-to-start” ignition systems. As a result, locking the doors with the key fob will set the factory alarm and activate an “ignition kill” feature so the vehicles cannot be started when subjected to the popularized theft mode. Customers must use the key fob to unlock their vehicles to deactivate the “ignition kill” feature.”

Future TikTok influencers will be warned away with a window stickers announcing the presence of anti-theft software.

For owners of MY 2011-2022 models that can’t accommodate the re-flash, Hyundai is finalizing a plan to reimburse them for steering wheel lock purchases.

These vehicles were easily operable without the use of the key, so it’s unclear how they could comply with a 55-year-old standard that the NHTSA promulgated specifically to respond to a surge car thefts and related crashes. FMVSS 114, established in 1968, simply requires:

Each vehicle must have a starting system which, whenever the key is removed from the starting system prevents:

(a) The normal activation of the vehicle’s engine or motor; and

(b) Either steering, or forward self-mobility, of the vehicle, or both

In 2004, former NHTSA Chief Counsel Jacqueline Glassman explained to an unnamed automaker that NHTSA specifically added that bit about preventing either steering forward self-mobility or both to defeat thieves:

“Provision (a) was intended to prevent unauthorized operation of a motor vehicle by requiring that the vehicle could not be started without the key. Provision (b) was intended to further impede unauthorized operation of a motor vehicle by preventing vehicle operation outside the normal activation method. That is, if an attempt were made to circumvent the ignition lock (through “hot-wiring,” for example), another device would prevent unauthorized operation of a motor vehicle.”

Most automakers, including the anonymous manufacturer that wrote to NHTSA nearly 20 years ago, use immobilizers as deterrents. In the 1980s, automakers began to develop immobilizers, defined by NHTSA as “an anti-theft device that combines microchip and transponder technology with engine and fuel immobilizer components that can prevent vehicles from starting unless a verified code is received by the transponder.” GM had a version which used an early generation of microchip devices, “which later developed into the rolling code transponder device.” Other automakers, such as Ford, Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Mazda followed throughout the 1990s, and touted these devices to NHTSA as significantly reducing thefts.

Some of the Hyundai-Kia models favored by young joyriders across the nation weren’t equipped with immobilizers (which are not specifically required under FMVSS 114) – or anything else to prevent vehicles from being started without the key and driven away, which suggests they aren’t compliant with the requirements of the theft protection standard.

Back in the day, NHTSA cited a Department of Justice study showing that 94,000 stolen cars were in crashes in 1966 and more than 18,000 of these incidents resulted in injury to one or more people. According to the report, the crash rate for stolen cars was some 200 times greater than the normal crash rate for non-stolen vehicles. The agency thought this such a serious situation, they wrote a rule to ensure that automakers did not produce vehicles that were so easy to steal.

NHTSA’s approach to Hyundai-Kia is puzzling, given the $210 million civil settlement – the agency’s largest penalty to date – it levied in 2020 for “inaccuracies” and “omissions” in its communications with the agency and a failure to launch timely recalls involving more than 1.6 million Hyundai and Kia vehicles suffering from a manufacturing defect that allowed metal debris to cause premature wear of a bearing that could lead to an engine stall.

And, in the face of what appears to be a non-compliance, if not a complete abrogation of the intent of FMVSS 114, why isn’t the agency requiring Hyundai-Kia a proper recall, which would include an admission of defect, an accounting of how the violation occurred, a formal notification process for affected consumers and an accounting of whether the fix reached enough people or even worked at all.