In 2017, United States safety regulators opened a formal investigation into the recall of roughly 1.7 million vehicles built by Hyundai Motor Co and its affiliate, Kia Motor Corp, after being tipped off by a former employee. The informant claimed the automaker wasn’t handling the issue properly. That same year, South Korean civic group YMCA filed a complaint with local prosecutors alleging the automakers delayed fixing engine defects that prompted the same recalls.
According to Reuters, South Korean prosecutors raided the offices of Hyundai Motor Group’s quality division in Seoul on Wednesday. While the investigation concerns the company’s Theta II engines, both investigations seek to nail down a timeline of the recalls and establish whether or not Hyundai handled the situation responsibly.
Kim Gwang-ho, the former Hyundai engineer who flew to Washington tell the NHTSA the company should have recalled more vehicles, also reported several alleged safety lapses to both U.S. and South Korean authorities — citing internal documents.
Hyundai recalled 470,000 U.S. Sonata sedans in 2015, claiming potential engine failure could result in stalling or even a fire. While most consumer complaints didn’t mention fire, engine seizures had become uncomfortably common. The automaker attributed the problem to metallic debris left behind from the manufacturing process — an issue that had cropped up before, forcing Hyundai to alter its deburring process several years earlier.
By March of 2015, the company expanded its recall to include 572,000 Sonata and Santa Fe Sport vehicles, while Kia tacked on 618,160 Optima, Sorento, and Sportage vehicles equipped with the Theta II four-cylinder.
At this time, it’s unclear what Hyundai did or didn’t know about the engines. Both it and Kia have denied allegations that they mishandled the recalls, pledging their cooperation with authorities, but the quality control problem remains a longstanding issue. The debris problem had become common knowledge prior to Kim’s whistleblowing; Hyundai vowed to improve the way it handled safety-related defects in 2014 — after the NHTSA lapped with with a $17.35 million fine over brake defects.
Kim alleges the problem with the Theta II have as much to do with the debris issue as it does its design. He believes Hyundai intentionally delayed recalls because it knew the costs needed for a comprehensive fix would be astronomical. While the manufacturer denies this, it was good enough for South Korea’s transport ministry to issue a compulsory recall of over 240,000 vehicles and apparently raid Hyundai’s corporate offices in Seoul.