Kia and Hyundai Sued by City of Seattle for Massive Spike in Car Thefts

The city said that the automakers skipped industry-standard immobilizers for profits from 2011 to 2021.

byAaron Cole|
Kia and Hyundai Sued by City of Seattle for Massive Spike in Car Thefts
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The City of Seattle filed a lawsuit against automakers Kia and Hyundai this week, saying they disregarded public safety for profitability by failing to install immobilizers on their cars. Those cars quickly became easy targets for thieves, burdening law enforcement and other officials in the city, and costing the city an unspecified amount of money, according to the lawsuit. Seattle’s lawsuit may not be the first against the automakers—other cities’ attorneys general has said they would consider suing the automakers—but it’s the largest so far. 

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Washington, outlines similar claims that other cities have reported. In the lawsuit, Seattle’s city attorneys allege that Kia and Hyundai knowingly refused to install immobilizers on their cars sold in the U.S. between 2011 and 2021 to boost profits. In 2015, 96% of vehicles sold by other manufacturers were equipped with immobilizers, but only 26% of Hyundai and Kia vehicles were equipped with the anti-theft technology. Hyundai and Kia's vehicles were sold in other markets during that time period with the immobilizers because they were mandatory, but not in the U.S. 

Other cities in the U.S. have struggled with the thefts, which they say have spread on social media platforms like TikTok, including Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, reporting surging rates of thefts that have made the cars uninsurable for some companies. The lawsuit alleges that police in Milwaukee reported an increase in the theft of Hyundai and Kia cars by 2,500% in 2021 alone. In Seattle, police reported an increase of theft of Hyundai and Kia cars by 620% in July 2022 versus July 2021. Most of the cars were stolen and taken on joyrides or used for other crimes, the lawsuit says—not sold for parts. The lawsuit details several fatal crashes of joyriders that stole Hyundai or Kia cars because of their vulnerability. What’s more, a Hyundai Sonata owned by the Department of Homeland Security was stolen with guns, ammunition and body armor, the lawsuit alleges. 

Seattle attorneys said the responsibility to retrofit the vehicles with keyfob immobilizers should be the automakers’, not the owners, and says the companies haven’t attempted to reduce the number of thefts for their cars. 

A spokesperson from Hyundai told The Drive in a statement: "Hyundai believes this lawsuit is improper and unnecessary.  In response to increasing thefts targeting our vehicles without push-button ignitions and immobilizing anti-theft devices in the United States, Hyundai Motor America has made engine immobilizers standard on all vehicles produced as of November 2021. Additionally, Hyundai has taken a series of actions to deter thefts of affected vehicles, including an upcoming software update scheduled to be available beginning next month and provided at no cost to customers. Hyundai is also providing free steering wheel locks, as available, to select law enforcement agencies across the country, including in the Seattle area, for distribution to local residents who own or lease affected models. Owners may also bring their vehicles to a local Hyundai dealer for the purchase and installation of a customized security kit. We apologize for the inconvenience to affected customers."

Kia issued a similar statement, saying: "Kia remains concerned that criminal actors are targeting certain Kia cars with a steel key and “turn-to-start” ignition systems. While no car can be made completely theft-proof, Kia continues to make steering wheel locks available to customers through interested local law enforcement agencies, subject to available supply, at no cost to concerned owners of these vehicles. Kia also continues its efforts to develop additional solutions for vehicles not originally equipped with an immobilizer, including the development and testing of enhanced security software designed to restrict operation of the vehicle’s ignition system. Kia has started notifying owners of certain models of the availability of this software upgrade at no cost, and Kia anticipates that it will make software upgrades available for most affected vehicles over the next few months."

Update: Statements from Kia and Hyundai have been included in this story.

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