ST. LOUIS — The deadline for Hyundai Motor America and Kia is up.
The automakers had 30 days to respond to a demand letter from the City of St. Louis to recall their vehicles and install anti-theft devices to stop a theft epidemic involving their cars or face a lawsuit.
In their responses, the companies refused to recall their vehicles, disagreed with Mayor Tishaura Jones’ characterization of their products and said they are taking some steps to address the problem.
Kia’s attorney suggested a new type of car thief is to blame for the problem.
Jones would not say whether the responses are enough for the companies to avoid a lawsuit.
“We will just have to see,” she said. “This is the first step again. And they'll have a conversation with our city attorneys and we'll see what the next steps are after that.”
Some have criticized Jones’ threat as similar to suing gun manufacturers for gun violence.
“We have to hold manufacturers accountable when there are defects in their products,” she said. “But also, we are working with mayors across the country to see if this is also an issue that has plagued their cities, and many mayors have told me directly that it does.
“So we're going to be working with mayors across the country to address this as well.”
Meanwhile, the latest numbers from St. Louis police show the problem is still surging.
So far this year, 2,409 Hyundais and Kias have been reported stolen compared to just 205 at the same time last year.
That’s a 1,075% increase.
In all, 2,794 vehicles were reported stolen in St. Louis by Sept. 21, 2021.
This year, 4,684 cars have been reported stolen.
That’s a nearly 70% increase.
And the city already has surpassed the total number of car thefts that were reported in all of 2021, which was 3,784.
“This is a nuisance and it has to stop,” Jones said.
But Hyundai and Kia say their products are not to blame, and Jones is wrong when she calls them defective.
At issue is how some makes and models of Hyundais and Kias lack engine immobilizing technology, that prevents the engine from starting if it doesn’t recognize a computer chip in the key.
Without it, thieves can strip an ignition column and start the car with a USB cord. Thieves are also breaking the back windows to the cars because they are not connected to the alarm systems and posting their methods on Tik Tok and other popular social media platforms.
Executive Vice-President of Kia America, Inc.’s Legal Division said steering wheel locks are an effective way to prevent thefts.
"We strongly disagree with your statement that the subset of our vehicles that do not contain immobilizers are 'defective' or that these vehicles are the cause of the thefts, property damage and acts of violence occurring in St. Louis," wrote John Yoon, executive vice-president of the legal division at Kia America, Inc.
Yoon wrote that a new kind of car thief has emerged in some markets, “who is willing to drive around in a vehicle even though it has obvious outward signs of being stolen.”
“This is a significant contrast from the traditional thief, who focused on vehicles that could be stolen without any obvious signs of theft while driving – and this is what vehicle designs have largely focused on preventing…The emergence of this new kind of thief is unquestionably a new and unfortunate development, which we are hopeful and confident that law enforcement is keenly focused on eliminating.”
Hyundai Motor America’s Chief Legal Officer Jason Erb also took issue with Jones’ language.
“We must respectfully disagree with your contention that any defect or failure on our part is responsible for these thefts and the wider pattern of criminal activity involving these vehicle thefts,” he wrote.
He continued: “Rather than a vehicle issue, these thefts are unfortunately being caused by criminal acts popularized through social media. Accordingly, there is no basis for a claim of public nuisance against Hyundai.”
Erb said the company is also working with social media sites to take down videos showing how to steal their cars, and is preparing to launch an anti-theft kit for consumers Oct. 1.
Hyundai owners will be able to go to authorized dealerships and Compustar authorized installers across the country to buy them.
The automaker does not know how much the kits will cost.
Both companies also noted how they are making anti-theft technology known as engine immobilizers standard on all new models — even though they don’t have to according to federal regulations.
The companies also insisted they are taking other steps to help consumers who own Hyundais without the technology made between 2011 and 2021 and Kias made between 2015 and 2021, such as sending free steering wheel locks to police departments across the country.
Hyundai sent 100 car clubs to St. Louis Police last month, as well as the North St. Louis County Police Cooperative and the University City Police Department.
Kia said so far, only University City police have asked for them, so they are the only ones who have received them.
“I'd like to see a solution where those who spent their hard-earned money to buy a vehicle that was stolen as a result of something that wasn't there, that was standard in another vehicle, I'd like to see them made whole somehow,” Jones said. “Hopefully that’s going to be a part of the conversations they'll have with our city counselor.”