Kia and Hyundai helped enable a crime wave. They should pay for it.
By Farhad Manjoo
In a recent analysis of data from 37 American cities, the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, suggested a hopeful trend — the pandemic-era spike in crime may have peaked. The homicide rate has dropped significantly over the last year, based on data from 30 American cities. In many places, just about all types of violent crimes are down, in some areas substantially — in Atlanta, for instance, there have been 21% fewer aggravated assaults, 28% fewer homicides and 56% fewer rapes than at this point in 2022, according to police department data.
But there’s a glaring exception: auto thefts. According to the Council on Criminal Justice, “The number of vehicle thefts during the first half of 2023 was 33.5% higher, on average, than during the same period in 2022 — representing 23,974 more vehicle thefts in the cities that reported data.” In Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; New Orleans; Buffalo, New York; and Durham, North Carolina, motor vehicle thefts this year have more than doubled relative to last year, according to stats collected by Jeff Asher, a crime data analyst. This week, The Baltimore Sun reported that “auto thefts are on pace to more than double the total from last year, as reports through the first eight months of 2023 are already up 88% compared to all of 2022.”
Why are so many cars getting stolen? Police departments and city officials point to this: Millions of Kias and Hyundais are ridiculously easy to steal.
For years now, most automakers have equipped most of the cars they sell in the United States with electronic immobilizers, devices that prevent cars from starting unless they detect a radio ID code associated with the car’s rightful key. But Hyundai and Kia, which come under the same South Korean conglomerate, did not install this basic device in somewhere around 9 million cars sold between 2011 and 2022. A couple of years ago, videos showing how to hotwire the vulnerable cars began to pop up online. I won’t go into details but I will say that it doesn’t require much more than a USB plug.
The resulting crime wave has clobbered American cities. “We’re hitting close to 6,000 cars that have been stolen this year alone,” Adrian Diaz, Seattle’s police chief, told me. More than a third of the cars stolen in Seattle in August were Hyundais and Kias, he said. “That’s a massive cost, not only for the victim of having a vehicle stolen,” but also in resources involved in “trying to investigate these crimes,” Diaz said.
And then there are the follow-on incidents. Stolen Kias and Hyundais have been involved in numerous deadly crashes, armed robbery sprees and other crimes around the country. “We’re recovering guns out of a lot of Kias that are stolen,” Diaz said.
Seattle is one of several cities that are suing Kia and Hyundai, and they make a compelling case. The carmakers should have known they were creating unsafe products. The costs of their decision have had far-reaching effects on public safety and city resources, and there’s no telling when the thefts might abate. Kia and Hyundai, not the public, should bear the cost of their irresponsible decision to sell cars without immobilizers.
The carmakers say they’re doing all they can to stem the thefts. They’ve created a software update that they say fixes the issue; it requires a visit to a dealer and takes up to 45 minutes to install. They’ve also given police departments anti-theft steering wheel locks to hand out to affected owners, they say. So far, about 21% of affected cars — about 660,000 Kias and 811,000 Hyundais — have had the software upgrade installed, the carmakers said. (After you get the upgrade, the carmakers will give you a window sticker to alert thieves that they’re wasting their time with your ride — a good idea, I guess, though it does place a lot of faith in the integrity of would-be criminals.) The companies have also settled a $200 million lawsuit with owners of the vulnerable cars (though a federal judge recently rejected the settlement, ruling that it may not offer enough compensation for some drivers). A Kia spokesperson told me that the cities’ lawsuits are “without merit,” arguing that federal auto safety regulators do not require automakers to install immobilizers in their vehicles. (A lawsuit filed by several insurance companies disputes this point.)
It may also be difficult for cities to prove that the rise in thefts is primarily Kia and Hyundai’s fault. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist who is one of the authors of the Council on Criminal Justice’s analysis, told me that motor vehicle theft is an under-researched phenomenon. Many police departments do not “code” the make and model of stolen cars, so it’s difficult to make long-term comparisons. “I cannot tell you what fraction of all motor vehicles that are stolen are Kias and Hyundais,” he said.
But stats released by some of the worst affected cities strongly suggest that thefts of Kias and Hyundais are a major part of the recent spike. In the first half of 2022, according to the Chicago mayor’s office, there were about 500 stolen Kias and Hyundais in Chicago. In the second half of 2022, the number of stolen Kias and Hyundais shot up to 8,350; this year, more than half of the cars stolen in Chicago were from these two brands. In August, Cleveland.com reported that Kias and Hyundais made up 57% of cars stolen this year, compared with 11% during the same period last year. In May, the Baltimore mayor’s office announced the city’s suit against the carmakers, reporting that Kias and Hyundais accounted for 41% of the cars stolen up to that point this year. (Hyundai and Kia accounted for just over 10% of the cars sold in America in the first quarter of this year, according to the research firm Cox Automotive.)
There’s a chance that Kia and Hyundai will escape some of the blame for these thefts because there’s a juicier target for politicians to go after: social media platforms, where the how-to videos have circulated.
Media accounts of the thefts often highlight TikTok’s role; one Insider story was headlined “Grand Theft TikTok.” In March, Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, held a news conference to discuss the city’s response to the rise in stolen cars. After pointing out the steps Hyundai and Kia have taken to prevent the thefts, he went after tech companies. “We don’t need social media to contribute to social disorder,” he said. The same month, Rep. Joe Morelle, D-N.Y., told reporters, “We don’t need companies like TikTok playing an active role in facilitating these crimes and putting information on how-to videos for people who would misuse them.”
This strikes me as bizarre blame shifting. It’s Kia and Hyundai, not TikTok, that sold theft-prone cars. I’m not against tech companies moderating their platforms to curb the spread of potentially dangerous information. But you know what would be better? Making cars that can’t be stolen with a USB cable.