NHTSA’s (Not/Can’t Be) On It: Hyundai-Kia Vehicles With Substandard Theft Protection Continue to Wreak Havoc

The Hyundai Kia theft saga greeted the new year with a bang. Among other things: deaths in crashes involving stolen vehicles, an alleged kidnapping involving a theft attempt, a new municipal lawsuit, and another bright idea from Hyundai and Kia to protect vehicles which could not be fixed with a software upgrade – that will, no doubt be executed flawlessly. In other words, everything’s still totally bonkers. And yet, NHTSA, the nation’s esteemed regulator and enforcer of automotive safety, continues to observe from the sidelines.

In the first six weeks of 2024:

There have been at least seven deaths in crashes involving stolen Hyundai and Kia vehicles with teenage drivers at the wheel. According to a story in the Indianapolis Star, on Jan. 2, a teen driver slammed into another vehicle as he fled police in a stolen Kia Sedona. The driver of the other vehicle, 34-year-old Julio Cervantes Ramirez, died at the scene. Two days later, a stolen 2013 Hyundai Accent occupied by four teens crashed in Boston, killing a 14- and 15-year-old. Six days later, a third teen died from his injuries in that rollover crash. On January 14, another 14-year-old child died when the driver crashed a stolen Kia Sportage into a private residence; two other occupants were taken to the hospital. In mid-February, Michigan saw two more deaths in separate crashes involving stolen Kia vehicles.

A woman walking her dog on the streets of Northeast Washington D.C. had to scoop up her pet and take cover to avoid being hit by the driver of a stolen Hyundai Tucson barreling down the sidewalk. A couple in Columbus Ohio were charged with kidnapping after surprising a 13-year-old boy presumably trying to break into the woman’s Kia, allegedly forcing him at gunpoint into their apartment, and demanding cash from the boy’s family to fix the damaged ignition column. In a news report, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein cautioned residents against administering their own rough justice, but expressed some sympathy for the defendants: “I do think it is evidence and a reflection of the frustration people have. They want to be able to maintain their livelihood and they know that may not happen if their car is stolen.’”

Newark, N.J. became the latest city to direct its ire at the manufacturers, suing Hyundai/Kia in U.S. District Court. Newark is trying to recoup more than $1 million the city spent in auto theft suppression overtime hours to address a car theft surge in the first ten months of 2023. The suit alleges that the amount is “more than the yearly auto theft suppression overtime costs of 2021 and 2022 combined.”  Like other municipalities, Newark saw a huge increase in auto thefts, with Hyundai and Kia models making up a disproportionate share of the vehicles reported stolen in the first 10 months of 2023. The lawsuit alleged a more than 1000 percent increase over 2022 theft reports, with nearly twenty percent of all of Newark’s registered Hyundais and Kias reported stolen in 2023, accounting for 58 percent of all vehicles stolen in Newark. 

The City of Austin joined the chorus of frustrated municipalities, passing a resolution urging NHTSA to compel a recall of Kia and Hyundai models without engine immobilizers. The basis for the resolution is auto theft figures showing that from November 2022 to November 2023 auto thefts increased by 63 percent; Hyundai and Kia vehicles accounted for more than a third of those thefts, even though fewer than 10 percent of vehicles registered in Austin are Hyundai or Kia vehicles. Said one councilman:

“Our hope is because we have multiple cities across multiple jurisdictions that our federal government will take notice and [the NHSTA] will see the importance of taking action to demand that Kia and Hyundai immediately recall their technology.”

One can dream. NHTSA is now, and has been, a rudderless agency, with blank spots on the organizational chart for Administrator and Chief Counsel. Increasingly, it’s hard to see how an overworked agency with no leadership at the top could take the sort of decisive action needed.

In a statement to KXAN in January, the Austin news station that sought a comment from the regulator, NHTSA assured the public that everything was under control:

This particular matter involves intentional criminal conduct under the purview of law enforcement authorities. However, since 2022, NHTSA has repeatedly met with Hyundai and Kia to discuss the causes contributing to the theft vulnerability, review the scope of differing software and hardware in the affected models, and receive regular updates on the companies’ action 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.

This statement ignores the entire history and intent of safety standard FMVSS 114 Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention, which was promulgated in 1968 to address intentional criminal conduct under the purview of law enforcement authorities. NHTSA took up the issue because “casual” car thieves presented with easy targets were stealing vehicles and creating a safety hazard on public roadways.

Nonetheless, that’s more of a response from NHTSA than Safety Research & Strategies has gotten to its petition for rulemaking. Given NHTSA’s inability to enforce the requirements or address the intent of FMVSS 114 in the wake of the continuing waves of Hyundai/Kia thefts,   SRS made a formal request nine months ago that the agency amend the regulation. We noted that NHTSA has taken no compliance action at all claiming the theft protection safety standard was actually not enforceable as the problem continues to wreak havoc for owners, municipalities, law enforcement, and – in too many instances – causing carnage for pedestrians and other motorists who are being mowed over by kids fueled by exciting videos showing how they can play Grand Theft Auto in real life.

That’s because the federal anti-theft standard doesn’t mandate the use of engine immobilizers, instead, it gives automakers the choice to use effective technology – and the compliance test procedure for NHTSA’s contract labs doesn’t specify actions that include breaking or removing parts of the vehicle in an attempt to start it and gain forward mobility to determine compliance. Instead, the test procedure describes processes that simply specify removing the key (electronic or physical) from the vehicle, followed by an attempt to start the vehicle without it. But, NHTSA’s compliance procedure, which doesn’t lay out specific theft techniques for obvious reasons, does specifically state that the agency can authorize its contractors to depart from the procedures if they are consistent with the standard. The Purpose and Application section of NHTSA’s Laboratory Test Procedure for FMVSS 114 Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention states:

The OVSC [Office of Vehicle Safety and Compliance] test procedures include requirements that are general in scope to provide flexibility for contracted laboratories to perform compliance testing and are not intended to limit or restrain a contractor from developing or utilizing any testing techniques or equipment which will assist in procuring the required compliance test data.


In addition, the laboratory test procedures may be modified by the OVSC at any time without notice, and the COTR [Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative] may direct or authorize contractors to deviate from these procedures, as long as the tests are performed in a manner consistent with the standard itself and within the scope of the contract.

Back to our Petition for Rulemaking: By regulation, NHTSA is supposed to notify the petitioner within 120 days of its decision to grant or deny the petition. But, other than an acknowledgement that NHTSA received the petition, we’ve heard nothing.

Meanwhile, Hyundai and Kia’s ad hoc service campaigns continue, as do reports from owners that even after Hyundai and Kia software upgrades were done, their vehicles are still easy to steal quickly with little technical skill or special tools. The situation is unique to the U.S. It is not occurring in Canada or Europe, where immobilizers have been required since 2007 and 1998 respectively. So, elsewhere, the Korean automaker is fitting the same model vehicles with anti-theft engine immobilizers. But in the U.S., where its peers have long equipped their fleets with these effective features voluntarily, Hyundai-Kia decided it wasn’t necessary, because it could install any anti-theft measures it wanted. In America, Hyundai-Kia is an outlier – by choice – but wants its bad decisions to be viewed as if it’s all about everyone else’s actions.

In Omaha, a 2019 Hyundai Tucson was stolen the same way they are all stolen with a busted back window and a USB cord, despite receiving the software upgrade in August. According to a news report:

Chuck [Peters] purchased the Hyundai for his daughter and took it in after the August recall to install anti-theft software. The decals on the windows telling the world a starter inhibitor has been installed, the anti-theft technology would stop any attempt to steal the vehicle — but the car was stolen. The thieves left behind broken parts and an empty parking space. Police recovered the car, but when Chuck went to get some information from his daughter’s vehicle, he forgot to take the keys.

“What was really troubling for me was when we got the vehicle back, I had to go to the body shop to get some information for our insurance company. I was able to start the vehicle using the USB cable method as well, and that’s exactly what that update is supposed to fix,” he said.

In Louisville, 84-year-old Bobbie Sanders reported that her 2020 Kia Rio was stolen twice – once out the Kroger’s parking lot as she shopped, and a second time, just recently, out of her driveway. Each theft occurred after she took Rio to the dealer for a software upgrade in May and a second upgrade in October.

“We’ve done two upgrades with Kia and my mom still doesn’t have a car,” [her daughter Elizabeth] Madden said. “My mom’s out of all the monthly payments that she’s paid, the insurance that she’s paid, as well as the $1,000 loan she’s paying on that she had to pay to get her car out.”

In Milwaukee, Trisha Nguyen’s 2014 Kia Optima has been stolen three times – at least once after she had the software re-flash.

“I was initially told that the car could only start with a key ignition but that’s not the case because they broke the steering column again, and started it with a USB cord.” said Nguyen.  

In October, TMJ4 News spoke with a project manager for Kia’s Anti-Theft Program who explained how the upgrade is supposed to work.

‘This software update makes it so even if they try to plug that USB port and it’s not going to disable the ignition immobilizer, it’s going to keep that intact and it is going to sound the factory alarm,’ said Emily Falecki, Project Manager with Kia’s Anti-Theft Program.

On Friday, Falecki told TMJ4’s Ryan Jenkins by phone that part of this upgrade requires Kia owners to lock their cars with a key fob. If the vehicle isn’t locked with the key fob, the upgrade doesn’t work.”

And now, Hyundai and Kia have announced a new fix for vehicles that were ineligible for the software update: the installation of an “ignition cylinder protector with a locking bracket.” In a December 15 news release, Hyundai stated that protectors had been “independently tested and verified by a leading engineering and scientific consulting firm. It reinforces the ignition cylinder body and prevents its removal through the method of theft promoted across social media.” Kia followed with a similar announcement on December 29.

The repair procedure involves the installation of a metal shield that’s installed under the plastic steering column cover that’s easily broken and allows access to the ignition cylinder. To install the shield, the plastic steering cover is removed, then the key portion of the ignition cylinder is removed (along with the illuminated key ring if equipped). The ignition cylinder is then reinstalled after it’s coated with epoxy that permanently bonds it into the ignition assembly, and a metal protective shield is inserted over the ignition cylinder with more epoxy and further secured into place with screws that have break-away heads. Once this is complete, anti-theft decals are added to the vehicle side windows. (Vehicles with illuminated key rings will no longer have that lighting function restored.)

The Kia service procedure generally mirrors the Hyundai procedure described, but Kia specifies a different brand of epoxy (Loctite versus J-B Weld). And Kia requires the driver to sign a waiver noting that if the customer vehicle has a key illumination ring, it will be permanently removed, any future replacement of the ignition switch will require complete replacement of the ignition cylinder assembly, and that reinstallation of a new theft deterrent ignition cylinder protector that is compliant with the service program “will be at no cost to you.” The language “any reinstallation of a new Theft Deterrent Ignition Cylinder Protector will be at no cost to you” appears to indicate that in the event of a second installation there will be no cost to Kia America, because the rest of the waiver addresses the signer, (i.e., the customer) as “I.”

The repair process requires technicians to use epoxies that are extremely sticky and can be quite difficult to contain when the parts are put together, potentially causing excess epoxy to contaminate the electrical and mechanical components – an issue acknowledged by Hyundai and Kia in their technical bulletins. And all of this is happening when technicians are working under time constraints of labor allotments ranging from 15 to 40 minutes for the job, depending on the model.  

The completely permanent bonding and securement of the ignition component parts will require entire ignition switch assembly replacement in the future if the lock cylinder or other related components are damaged – either from theft, attempted theft, or other failures, including wear.

Hyundai plans to install the device in 646,000 vehicles, including the 2011-2017 Accent; 2013-2014 Elantra Coupe; and the 2011-2012 Elantra Touring, Genesis Coupe, Santa Fe and Veracruz vehicles. Kia’s service campaign included Soul, Rio, Forte, Sedona, and Sportage models from various production date ranges, so it is hard to tell exactly which model years are affected.

Hyundai’s press release indicated that starting on Dec. 20, it planned to reach out to owners about the new anti-theft service campaign via mail, email, phone, social media outreach, search engine marketing and display marketing. Both automakers directed owners to use VIN look-up tools at their dedicated websites to receive instructions on how to get the repair. We tested VINs for eligible Hyundai models this week, and Hyundai’s anti-theft customer page still provides no information. (But a call to Hyundai’s customer service with specific VINs verifies eligibility for the shield.) 

Across the country, large cities are posting high triple-digit increases in their theft rates, with thefts of inadequately protected Hyundai-Kia vehicles taking up a disproportionate share. For example, in August, Chicago sued Hyundai-Kia, alleging: “In 2022, more than 8,800 Kia and Hyundai vehicles were stolen in Chicago alone. This figure represented 41% of Chicago’s car thefts, even though Kia and Hyundai vehicles made up just 7% of the vehicles. Unfortunately, that trend has continued into 2023 and does not appear to be slowing.”

In December, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), which tracks insurance claims, released its third analysis in two years regarding theft claims of Hyundai-Kia vehicles without immobilizers. It showed a 1000-percent increase in such claims from the first half of 2020 to the first half of 2023. And the rise was far above its peers: in the first half of 2020, Hyundai Kia vehicles, like those of other manufacturers, were reported stolen at a rate of 1 per 1,000. In the first half of 2023, Hyundai-Kia theft reports had skyrocketed to 11.2 per 1,000, while the rate for other vehicles remained flat.

Uncaptured by theft figures are what seem to be significant numbers of crashes, deaths, and injuries involving stolen Hyundais and Kias. While no official entity appears to be gathering this data, these incidents crop up in the news on an alarmingly regular basis.

But, don’t worry folks, NHTSA is totally on it.