April 14, 2024
While crime nationally is down, auto thefts are quickly increasing and two car brands appear to be the main reason.

In a recent analysis of data from 37 American cities, the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, suggested a hopeful trend — the national pandemic-era spike in crime may have peaked.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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 shot up to 8,350; this year, more than half of the cars stolen in Chicago were from these two brands.

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.

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.

Farhad Manjoo is a New York Times columnist.

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