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Baltimore sues Hyundai, Kia over theft-prone vehicles

Madeleine O'Neill//May 11, 2023

A Hyundai sedan sits in the parking lot of East Bay Tow Inc., where Attorney General Rob Bonta held a news conference April 20, 2023, in Berkeley, California, about the surge in thefts of KIA and Hyundai vehicles. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

A Hyundai sedan sits in the parking lot of East Bay Tow Inc., where Attorney General Rob Bonta held a news conference April 20, 2023, in Berkeley, California, about the surge in thefts of KIA and Hyundai vehicles. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

Baltimore sues Hyundai, Kia over theft-prone vehicles

By Madeleine O'Neill

//May 11, 2023

Baltimore is joining the growing number of U.S. cities to sue Hyundai and Kia over the auto companies’ failure to install anti-theft software in their vehicles, a flaw that led to a surge in stolen cars and drained police resources, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims the companies cut corners by deciding not to use industry-standard technology in several vehicle models, ultimately passing the costs onto drivers and municipalities that are now dealing with the fallout.

UPDATE: Class-action lawsuit against Kia, Hyundai reaches $200M settlement

“The dramatically increased rate of Hyundai and Kia theft in Baltimore has required city and police resources that would not have been needed but for Hyundai and Kia’s deliberate failures,” the city’s lawyers wrote.

“Car thieves — many of them teenagers — take advantage of these failures and engage in reckless driving, creating substantial safety risks to themselves and Baltimore residents and their property.”

The city filed the complaint Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. St. Louis, Cleveland, San Diego, Milwaukee and Seattle are among the other cities that have also sued Kia and Hyundai over the issue.

According to the lawsuits, the companies installed engine immobilizers, an industry standard to prevent thefts, in only 26% of their 2015 vehicle models, compared with 96% of vehicles produced by other manufacturers.

In most vehicles, the ignition key sends a signal that disengages the immobilizer and allows the car to move. The technology was developed in response to thieves “hotwiring” cars by bypassing the ignition switch.

But Kia and Hyundai did not install immobilizers in many vehicle models from 2011 through 2021, according to the complaint, making it easier to steal them. In 2020, videos began appearing on social media showing a simple method to steal Hyundai and Kia vehicles using just a USB cable.

Since then, thefts of the vehicles have skyrocketed. Baltimore saw thefts of Hyundai and Kia vehicles more than double from 391 in 2021 to 807 in 2022, according to the city’s lawsuit. In 2023, 577 Hyundai and Kia vehicles have already been stolen as of this month.

The spike in thefts has made the city less safe, the complaint claims.

“Vehicle theft poses a serious threat to public safety – it goes hand in hand with reckless driving, which in turn causes injuries and death,” the city’s lawyers wrote.

“It also results in increased violence, as car owners may attempt to stop someone attempting to steal their vehicle. It consumes scarce law enforcement and emergency resources and deprives the public of safe streets and sidewalks.”

The suit alleges that Hyundai and Kia created a public nuisance by failing to protect their cars from theft, and asks a federal judge to find them liable and require them to correct the issue.

Ebony Thompson, Baltimore’s acting city solicitor, said the companies created a widespread problem “in order to save a few bucks.”

“We are joining these other cities to hold them responsible,” Thompson said.

“We hope that this lawsuit not only forces Hyundai and Kia to come up with a viable solution to this problem of their own making, but deters other companies in the future from putting profit over public safety.”

The lawsuit comes a few weeks after attorneys general in 17 states, including Maryland, urged the federal government to recall millions of Kia and Hyundai vehicles over the theft issue.

The companies have resisted recalling the cars but recently offered software upgrades to drivers who are affected.

In a statement, Kia said the company has contacted nearly 3 million people who own or lease Kias, and that 230,000 people have had the upgrade installed. The company also said it has provided thousands of free steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies across the country, including more than 1,450 to police departments “in the Baltimore area.”

“Lawsuits against Kia by municipalities are without merit,” the company said. “Kia has been and continues to be willing to work cooperatively with law enforcement agencies in the greater Baltimore area to combat car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it.”

Through a spokesperson, Hyundai said it had made engine immobilizers standard on all vehicles as of November 2021 and introduced a software upgrade for affected cars.


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