Some Hyundais and Kias built between 2011 and 2022 have ignition switches that are easily bypassed, making it possible to steal them within minutes, or even seconds. Credit: Unsplash

In response to ballooning thefts of certain Kias and Hyundais, linked to a social media challenge highlighting how easy they are to steal, several state attorneys general have issued a challenge of their own: The affected cars should all be recalled.

At a press event Thursday held at East Bay Tow in Northwest Berkeley, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that California and 17 other states have asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to institute a recall on some models if the manufacturers are not willing to recall them voluntarily.

Some Hyundais and Kias built between 2011 and 2022 have ignition switches that are easily bypassed, making it possible to steal them within minutes, or even seconds.

“The truth is, we shouldn’t have to be here today. We shouldn’t have to do this,” Bonta said. “Hyundai and Kia should have taken action of their own volition to correct the vulnerabilities.”

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Attorney General Rob Bonta and other state attorneys general came to Berkeley on April 20, 2023 to ask for a recall of certain Hyundais and Kias vulnerable to theft. Credit: California Department of Justice

A viral challenge on TikTok, which appeared around the summer of 2022, showed aspiring car thieves how to start their target cars. Some of the stolen cars were being taken for joyrides then abandoned. By February this year NHTSA estimated that the challenge had resulted in 14 crashes and eight deaths.

In Berkeley, thefts of Hyundais and Kias began to increase in July, according to city police. That spike grew dramatically in December. In March BPD said Kias and Hyundais accounted for 38% of cars stolen in the city, a number they say still holds for the 2023 calendar year.

Kias and Hyundais account for 38% of cars stolen in Berkeley, according to BPD.

Also in March, attorneys general from 23 states, including California, wrote to officials at Hyundai Motor North America and Kia Motors America, saying the manufacturers’ measures to address the thefts were insufficient and asking for “free alternative protective measures” for the car owners to whom the software fixes would not be available.

Police in Berkeley recommended parking in well-lit places or garages, but acknowledged that those options were not available to all Berkeleyans. They also recommended car owners use aftermarket steering lock devices, like The Club.

But “what we believe from a law enforcement perspective is the most impactful is [engine] immobilizer devices, theft-deterrent devices that have to be installed in the vehicle,” Interim Police Chief Jen Louis said at Thursday’s event.

“Not only are people directly affected by the loss of their vehicle, but we know that the theft of these vehicles is resulting in those stolen vehicles being used to perpetrate further crimes,” Louis said.

Bonta highlighted the lack of those engine immobilizers in many Kias and Hyundais, in combination with their vulnerable ignition systems, in a letter to NHTSA Acting Administrator Ann Carlson Thursday.

“Immobilizers have been industry-standard for years, reducing rates of vehicle theft substantially, yet they are absent from these Hyundai and Kia vehicles,” Bonta wrote.

Hyundai and Kia announced in February they would offer a free software update to owners of some vulnerable cars. “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,” according to an announcement from NHTSA at the time.

Bonta said Thursday the software did not go nearly far enough.

“First of all, the updates won’t be available for many vehicles until June. In the meanwhile, their vehicles are vulnerable to the thefts that we’re seeing,” Bonta said. “Second, those software updates are not available at all for approximately 600,000 Hyundai owners,” as well as an “unknown” but “significant” number of Kia owners.

In the Thursday letter to NHTSA, the signatories alleged that the manufacturers had violated federal safety standards and said that “a recall — either voluntary or ordered by NHTSA — is needed to correct this safety-related defect.”

Officials with Hyundai and Kia did not immediately respond to requests for comment, though Kia America did respond later with a statement that read the manufacturer “remains very focused on this issue and we continue to take action to address the concerns these attorneys general have raised.”

Kia America denied any failure to adhere to federal safety standards and said any Kia owners with questions should call 800-333-4542 or visit the “owner’s portal” at the manufacturer’s website.

This story was updated after Kia America responded after publication to a request for comment.

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Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...