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Cities across the country are suing Kia and Hyundai for failing to install basic anti-theft technology, with a subsequent massive surge of stolen cars burdening police departments, according to lawsuits filed in recent months.Since the beginning of the year, Seattle, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Columbus have all sued Kia and Hyundai, which are owned by the same parent company, for selling cars without engine immobilizers, a technology that has served as a major contributor to the plummeting rate of stolen vehicles in the U.S. As the rest of the industry adopted immobilizers, Kia and Hyundai didn’t, with only 26 percent of their cars including them in 2015, compared to 96 percent for other manufacturers.
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Without the immobilizers, the cars are trivially easy to steal, requiring just a USB cable. A viral Youtube and Tiktok trend instructed people how to steal the cars. Kia and Hyundai cars manufactured without the immobilizers between 2015 and 2020, especially lower-end models like the Accent, Rio, and Sportage, are especially vulnerable. A lawsuit filed by dozens of insurance companies against Kia and Hyundai allege the lack of immobilizers violated federal regulations.The surge in Kia and Hyundai thefts in cities around the country has been staggering and it shows no sign of abating. In a lawsuit filed last week, the City of Chicago said that in 2022, more than 8,800 Kia and Hyundai vehicles were stolen in the city, which accounts for 41 percent of all of Chicago’s car thefts, despite Kia and Hyundai making up just seven percent of the city’s vehicles. In a press release announcing the lawsuit, the city said it is getting even worse in 2023, with Kias and Hyundais making up more than half of all stolen cars in the city this year.
Chicago is hardly alone. In Seattle, thefts of Hyundais and Kias in July 2022 increased 620 percent over the prior year. In Baltimore, Hyundai and Kia thefts doubled from 2021 to 2022, and the city’s lawsuit said it expects thefts in 2023 to double again because more Hyundais and Kias had already been stolen through May of 2023 than in all of 2022. In Cleveland, there were 475 thefts of Hyundais and Kias in December 2022 alone and a 622 percent increase in January 2023 from a year prior. And in New York City, 977 Hyundais and Kias were stolen in the first four months of 2023, a 660 percent increase compared to the same time period in 2022.But none of these cities can match what happened in Milwaukee, largely credited as the epicenter of the “Kia Boyz” or “Kia Boys” social media trend. By June 2021, according to the same text used in each of the cities’ lawsuits, the theft of Hyundais and Kias became a veritable crime spree, increasing 2,500 percent from a year prior. An average of 16 Kias and Hyundais were being stolen each day.The story is the same even in cities that haven’t yet sued. In St. Petersburg, Florida, 41 percent of the vehicles stolen are Kias and Hyundais without immobilizers. A similar surge in Kia and Hyundai thefts is happening in Los Angeles, Detroit, Norfolk, Burlington, Portland, Oregon, Charlotte, Omaha, Louisville, and St. Paul.In statements to Motherboard, Kia spokesperson James Bell said the lawsuits filed by cities against the company are “without merit” and that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined it did not violate any regulations or safety standards. In June, NHTSA’s acting associate director of enforcement Cem Hatipoglu responded to 18 state attorneys general that asked for a recall of the cars by saying, “At this time, NHTSA has not determined that this issue constitutes either a safety defect or noncompliance requiring a recall.” A NHTSA spokesperson told Motherboard the agency has been meeting with Kia and Hyundai about the issue but wouldn’t say if it agreed with Kia’s interpretation.Hyundai spokesperson Ira Gabriel similarly said that all its vehicles are “fully compliant with federal anti-theft requirements.” Hyundai and Kia owners can get steering wheel locks from their local police departments or through dedicated websites. Both companies also offer a free software patch that they say removes the threat of theft, which requires visiting a dealer. Bell of Kia says the company has distributed more than 190,000 wheel locks and that 650,000 vehicles have gotten the software update, out of three million total. Both companies now include immobilizers on all their new cars.