After considerable prodding by a number of safety groups, on Monday, federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that they have launched two new investigations into vehicles that have reportedly burst into flames without being involved in a crash.
The Investigations Come After Many Warnings
These investigations come nearly six months after the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) petitioned the NHTSA to investigate possible defects. The CAS asked NHTSA to act as quickly as possible because the number of documented fires had been growing exponentially.
The number of vehicles that caught fire was 120 at the time of the fire, but has grown to 3,125 by now. According to the NHTSA, Hyundai has reported 1,181 fire-related incidents, while Kia has reported 1,540 such incidents. In addition, 404 incidents were reported directly to the agency. A number of eerily similar experiences have been reported by numerous drivers, many of whom report driving along the highway at about 60 mph, and suddenly hearing a loud bang and then losing power, before they watch helplessly as black smoke and flames suddenly pour from beneath the hood. Such reports have come from cities all over the country.
The NHTSA will be looking into possible defects that may be causing vehicles to combust in situations unrelated to vehicle collisions. The vehicles affected are 2011 to 2014 Kia Optima cars and Sorento SUVs and 2010 to 2015 Kia Soul cars, as well as 2011 to 2014 Hyundai Sonata cars and Santa Fe SUVs. In all, the investigation will cover 1.3 million Hyundai vehicles and 1.7 million Kia vehicles.
All of these vehicles have the same engine, which is called the Theta II. Also, most of the above vehicles were produced in the same factory in West Point, Georgia, while the Hyundai Sonatas were produced at a plant in Montgomery, Alabama. Though Hyundai and Kia are run as separate business units, they share a single corporate parent. Both automakers issued recalls this past January for 168,000 vehicles related to the fires, but at the time, the CAS said those recalls might be too limited in their scope.
Why NHTSA Was Forced to Investigate
When the NHTSA opens an investigation, agency engineers start by conducting a preliminary evaluation and review and they request data from the manufacturer, including the number of complaints, warranty claims, injuries, and parts sales. They also will ask the manufacturer to present its views about the alleged defect. In some cases, that can lead them to close the case, but this case has seen so many reports, it is more likely to lead to a full engineering analysis. In the meantime, however, the NHTSA will likely encourage the manufacturers to issue a recall. CAS has been making the case for months that Hyundai and Kia should have issued a recall months ago.
NHTSA made the decision to undertake this investigation based on its analysis of the information it received from a number of sources, including the information it received from Hyundai and Kia, as well as consumer complaints and other sources. While the manufacturers issued recalls previously, NHTSA investigators say the new probe will look beyond the engine and will cover other vehicle systems and components.
Other Agencies Are Looking Into This
In March, a group of state attorneys general banded together to investigate both Hyundai and Kia for potentially unfair and deceptive business practices regarding their reaction to reports of what were then hundreds of vehicle fires. At that time, the automakers agreed to provide software upgrades for more than 3.7 million vehicles that were not being recalled. Also, federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the manufacturers to determine if their previous recalls on this issue were conducted properly. In addition, prosecutors in South Korea are conducting investigations of their own into the vehicle fire problem, to the point of raiding their corporate offices and subpoenaing executives for questioning. In 2016, a South Korean whistleblower reported concerns to NHTSA, which has been looking into the timeliness of several U.S. recalls and whether enough vehicles were covered.