Crime, Law and Justice

Police urge Kia, Hyundai owners to get anti-theft upgrades

man in brown coat stands beside car
Hyundai executive Dave VandeLinde speaks to reporters ahead of a vehicle upgrade clinic in Minneapolis.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Police are urging owners of many Kia and Hyundai models to get free software upgrades in an effort to deter car thieves.

Thefts of the vehicles spiked after widely circulated social media videos provided simple how-to instructions. Both automakers are offering software patches at their respective dealerships and at special events starting Friday in the Twin Cities.

Hyundai technicians will be at the parking lot of the former Lake Street Kmart in Minneapolis from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

A similar event is scheduled for Sunday and Monday at Allianz Field in St. Paul. Kia is offering upgrades at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Many Kias and Hyundais built between 2011 and 2022 were not manufactured with electronic immobilizers, which have been standard in the auto industry for decades.

The technology prohibits a vehicle from starting if a code programmed into a microchip in the key does not match a code in the onboard computer.

At a Thursday news conference with Hyundai to promote the upgrades, Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara said that the ease with which thieves can start many vehicles is reminiscent of the rash of auto thefts that plagued American cities a generation ago.

“It’s auto theft similar to what we had seen in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when you could just get into a car, shove a screwdriver into the ignition and turn it on,” he said.

Dave VandeLinde, Hyundai Motor America’s vice present for after-sales, said that the upgrades install a software-based immobilizer that is activated with the vehicles’ remote key fobs.

“If the customer locks their vehicle with the lock button on their key fob, the vehicle has the immobilizer system armed,” VandeLinde said.

He said that each Hyundai model is slightly different, so engineers had to write multiple versions of the software, which takes about 20 minutes to install.

VandeLinde said that federal regulators are not requiring these upgrades, nor have they issued a mandatory recall. 

“Whether a defect is a recall or not is determined by the federal government through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” VandeLinde said. “If NHTSA orders us to have a recall on the vehicle, we’ll certainly follow their direction. They have at this point not determined that this is a recall since the vehicles meet all the safety standards for the years that they were produced.”

O’Hara urged the automakers to issue a voluntary recall and encouraged vehicle owners to get the upgrades.

“If we can’t mandate all of these cars off the road to get them fixed as soon as possible, we need to do everything else we possibly can,” he said.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has also pushed Hyundai and Kia to issue recalls.

“We are still hearing from consumers who have had their vehicles stolen after the update, and not all Kia and Hyundai vehicles are even eligible for that update in the first place,” said Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Brian Evans in an email to MPR News on Wednesday.

In March, Ellison launched an investigation to determine whether the automakers ran afoul of Minnesota’s consumer protection and public nuisance laws by not including electronic immobilizers in the vehicles’ original designs.

Minnesota is not part of a class-action lawsuit against Kia and Hyundai. But in August, Ellison wrote a letter to the court in which he noted that it’s not technically possible to provide the software updates to around 2.3 million theft-prone Kias and Hyundais that are still on the road.

On Oct. 31, U.S. District Judge James Selna gave preliminary approval to a $145 million settlement of the lawsuit. It would allow Kia and Hyundai owners to claim around $3,375 per theft or attempted theft incident.

Owners who’ve had to pay insurance deductibles or who’ve had their insurance rates increased would be eligible for up to $375 per claim. 

Chief O’Hara said that he knows of no instances in which a vehicle that received the upgrades had been stolen in Minneapolis. But he said thefts continue to be a major problem.

In 2022, MPD tallied 2,378 Kia and Hyundai thefts in the city, while so far this year there have been 4,085, with some vehicles stolen multiple times.

O’Hara said that the thieves, some as young as 11 or 12 years old, take the vehicles on joyrides, putting themselves and others at risk. The chief said that the juvenile justice system has largely not held these children accountable.

“Even when the police do catch them, frequently it’s catch and release, and they are often continuing to be involved in more and more serious crime, until they’re very seriously injured or dead themselves.”

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