By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
It’s been years since I read Ralph Nader’s 1965 classic, Unsafe at Any Speed – the book which made his reputation as a consumer advocate and led to the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act the following year and the adoption of seat belt laws by 49 states.
But as far as I can recall, Nader didn’t mean that any quite literally: the dangers he discussed only kicked in when the car was in motion.
Yesterday, Kia seems to have plumbed a new low in the auto safety race to the bottom when it announced a recall of nearly 380,000 Sportage and Cadeniza models, due to fire risk.
Until you get the vehicle fixed, it is unsafe at any speed. That includes parked in the garage or stashed close to any flammable structures.
Jalopnik provides details about the recall:
Kia is recalling many 2017-19 Cadenza sedans and 2017-21 Sportage crossovers, the AP reports. Owners can enter their car’s VIN into NHTSA’s website to see if their vehicle is affected. According to NHTSA, the recall affects a potential of 379,931 vehicles. Here are the details, from NHTSA:
Kia Motors America (Kia) is recalling certain 2017-2021 Sportage and Cadenza vehicles. The electrical circuit in the Hydraulic Electronic Control Unit (HECU) may short-circuit, which can cause a fire in the engine compartment.
Kia will notify owners, and dealers will replace certain fuses in the electrical junction box. Vehicles equipped with an electronic parking brake (EPB) will also receive a HECU software update. Repairs will be performed free of charge. Owners are advised to park outside and away from structures as a precaution until the recall repair is complete. The recall is expected to begin April 30, 2021. Owners may contact Kia customer service at 1-800-333-4542. Kia’s number for this recall is SC206. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]
For interested readers, I include a link to recall report issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Now, it’s been years since I’ve driven very much and I no longer own a vehicle. But as best as I can recall, if one’s vehicle is subject to a recall, it’s up to the owner to take it in for servicing. The manufacturer or dealer doesn’t send out mobile units to fix your car. So, I wondered whether an owner would get any warning that her/his vehicle was about to catch fire?
The answer, via AP:
The company says the recalled vehicles are not equipped with Kia’s Smart Cruise Control system.
Owners could see tire pressure, anti-lock brake or other warning lights on their dashboard before the problem happens. They also might smell a burning or melting odor.
One other warning sign that AP failed to mention that’s included in the original NHTSA report: smoke from the engine compartment.
Not only won’t Kia send out any mobile units to fix your car, but the company is taking its sweet time to notify owners of the problem, according to AP:
Owners will be notified starting April 30. Dealers will replace fuses in the electrical junction box to fix the problem
Why the delay?
It’s not clear to me if an owners who sees press reports and thus knows her/his car has a problem can take the vehicle into the dealer straightaway – I mean as soon as today – and get it fixed. Now, to be fair to Kia, perhaps the company doesn’t regard this defect as a clear and present danger.
Yet if that’s the case, why the warning about where to park the car?
According to AP:
Kia says in documents posted Tuesday by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it has no reports of crashes, fires or injuries due to the problem.
I also note that these are relatively new cars, so perhaps not enough time has passed for many fires to occur.
And although Kia’s claim may be true with respect to this particular defect. federal regulators have found considerable problems during an investigation spurred by owner complaints about engine fires in Kia and Hyundai vehicles Per the AP:
The recall comes after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating Kia and Hyundai engine fires in 2019. The agency opened the probe after the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety filed a petition seeking the investigation. When the inquiry began, the agency said it had owner complaints of more than 3,100 fires, 103 injuries and one death.
In November, NHTSA announced that Kia and Hyundai must pay $137 million in fines and for safety improvements because they moved too slowly to recall more than 1 million vehicles with engines that can fail. The fines resolve a government probe into the companies’ behavior involving recalls of multiple models dating to the 2011 model year.
Kia was to pay $27 million and invest $16 million in safety performance measures. Another $27 million payment will be deferred as long as Kia meets safety conditions, NHTSA said.
Kia denied the U.S. allegations but said it wanted to avoid a protracted legal fight.
Engine failure and fire problems with Hyundais and Kias have affected more than 6 million vehicles since 2015, according to NHTSA documents.
Time for a Tune Up; U.S. Auto Safety Regulation Is Well Overdue for Overhaul
As I’ve written in a previous post, regulation of the safety of passenger vehicles is pathetic – and well past due for overhaul (Unsafe at Any Speed Redux: Pinto and Takata Recalls Compared; and ). Once a defect is identified, manufacturers can dither and delay in ordering a recall, and once initiated, can drag their heels on letting owners know their vehicle has a problem. This is yet another area where the basic U.S. regulatory framework needs to be substantially overhauled to protect driver and passenger safety, not to mention other road users.
I don’t think Ralph Nader ever envisioned that the 2021 meaning of ‘unsafe at any speed’ would include parking the car in the garage.
Yet until the 380,000 Kia owners whose vehicles have been recalled can get them serviced that’s exactly the warning they’re being told to heed.