Hyundai, Kia to provide anti-theft software updates following viral TikTok challenge

Korean car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia are releasing “theft deterrent software” in the wake of a viral TikTok challenge showing how to hotwire and steal several models of their vehicles.

After an initial video was posted on the social media platform last July, the so-called ‘Kia challenge’ “spread nationwide” according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and “has resulted in at least 14 reported crashes and eight fatalities.”

The viral video showed how it was possible to disassemble the steering column and remove the ignition cylinder of affected cars, revealing a key for a port of a similar size and shape to USB Type A. People then used phone chargers to turn the ignition and start the car.

The underlying problem for Hyundai and Kia is they manufactured several vehicles without an electronic immobilizer, which is often an RFID security device attached to the car key itself. The engine control unit checks it before allowing any fuel to flow. Most vehicles by other automakers have the technology.

The new software updates from Hyundai and Kia will now require “the key to be in the ignition switch to turn the vehicle on,” according to NHTSA, similar to the controls imposed by electronic immobilizers, although without exactly replicating them.

Immobilizers have been legally required in new cars in several jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia, for almost two decades. They are not mandatory in the United States. 

The technology is believed to have led to a decrease in vehicle theft by as much as 80% in the United Kingdom, although research from Kaspersky suggests that due to weak encryption, immobilizers can be thwarted by a sophisticated carjacker.

The two automakers are offering the software updates free to vehicle owners. 

Hyundai said it is modifying its vehicle control modules to require the key to be in the ignition. Kia has not yet released a statement.

Hyundai’s update will mean that when the doors are locked with the key fob, the car will turn to its factory alarm setting. This turns on the “ignition kill” feature that can only be disabled when the vehicles are unlocked again using the fob.

Almost 4 million Hyundai vehicles will receive the upgrade, the company announced Tuesday, although it will be rolled-out in a staggered fashion.

NHTSA said Kia will “begin to update vehicles later this month, with ensuing phases throughout the next several months.”

Three of Hyundai’s models, the 2017-20 Elantra, the 2015-19 Sonata, and the 2020-21 Venue, are eligible for the software update from February 14 onwards. Additional affected vehicles will be able to receive the update in June.

Hyundai customers will have to visit a dealership to upgrade their cars, the company said, and the installation will take less than an hour. 

However some Hyundai vehicles made between 2011 and 2022 will not be able to receive the software upgrade. Hyundai said it is “finalizing a program to reimburse [these customers] for their purchase of steering wheel locks.”

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.