A proposed class action claims Hyundai is the latest in a long line of automakers who’ve traded safety for increased electric vehicle battery range.
The 33-page lawsuit alleges Hyundai has overstated the travel range of the lithium-ion batteries in its 2019-2021 Kona EV and 2020 Ioniq EV in that the cars can only cover their advertised ranges if the batteries are charged to “a dangerous degree.” When overcharged, lithium-ion batteries, which can be found in certain Chevy Bolt, BMW and Tesla models, notoriously pose a fire risk to the extent that some drivers have been advised to park their electric vehicles outdoors and away from structures.
The suit says Hyundai continues to sell the electric vehicles in the United States despite obvious safety concerns that arose in the wake of a series of fires plaguing the same cars in South Korea and subsequent recalls. The complaint charges that defendants Hyundai Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor America have “failed to be candid” with American drivers and concealed their knowledge of the Kona and Ioniq lithium-ion battery defect.
As the lawsuit tells it, Kona EV and Ioniq EV drivers have ultimately been left with electric vehicles that cannot match their advertised travel ranges following Hyundai’s reduction of the cars’ battery capacities as part of its U.S. recall over the fire risk.
“Hyundai can no longer hide the Battery Defect from the general public, given the amount of time that has now passed since the Kona’s release,” the suit reads. “Hyundai has now identified more than ten fires in South Korea traceable to the Kona’s battery pack.”
In October 2020, Hyundai voluntarily recalled roughly 6,700 Kona vehicles. The company claimed a small percentage of the cars could have a “high voltage battery system” with “certain electrical deficiencies” that had the potential to cause a fire. In March 2021, Hyundai expanded the recall to include certain 2019-2020 Kona EVs and 2020 Ioniq EV sedans that the company said may also be at risk for battery fires, according to the complaint.
As part of the recalls, Hyundai reprogrammed the dangerously maxed-out batteries in its Kona and Ioniq vehicles to 90 percent of their promised capacities, thereby decreasing their travel ranges to lower than what drivers were promised, the case says. The filing alleges Hyundai “knew or should have known” that the battery ranges for its electric Kona and Ioniq vehicles were falsely misrepresented yet continued to tell the public that the cars could meet their stated driving ranges.
Making matters worse, the complaint contends that the measures taken to reduce the fire risk may not have offered a complete fix, stating that the last Kona vehicle fire occurred just last month in a car that already underwent the recommended reprogramming, “raising questions about whether the reprogramming fix was actually a fix at all.”
These interim steps and half-measures provide very little relief to consumers who have lost the promised range on their vehicles, live in constant fear that their vehicles will spontaneously incinerate, and in some cases are not even able to drive their vehicles.”
For electric vehicles, advertised travel range is key for buyers
According to the lawsuit, the Ioniq, introduced by Hyundai in 2017, stood apart from other vehicles given it was available as a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or all-electric model. The case states, though, that the all-electric Ioniq had a relatively short driving range of 124 miles, notably shorter than other electric vehicles on the market at the time. Two years later, Hyundai introduced the Kona EV SUV, which the company hoped could compete in an electric vehicle market increasingly crowded by the likes of Tesla, Nissan and BMW, the suit explains.
At the time, the stakes were high for Hyundai, who sought to improve the range of its electric vehicles so as to hold a candle to Tesla while providing an alternative to fossil-fuel SUVs, the suit says. The complaint emphasizes the pressure an automaker faces in marketing an electric vehicle in the U.S., where increased driving range is a critical factor for potential buyers and lessees:
Therefore, electric car buyers particularly rely on manufacturer representations regarding the automobile’s ability to travel a specified distance on a single charge. Indeed, price and range are two primary considerations of consumers when deciding to purchase an electric vehicle. This is particularly true for SUVs, which are preferred for longer, more out-of-the-way trips, making vehicle range significant to those that may find themselves driving in circumstances far from available vehicle chargers.”
At the time of the Kona EV’s release, Hyundai advertised that the vehicle had a travel range of 258 miles without recharging, the case says, a representation the automaker has allegedly continued to make to the general public. In 2020, Hyundai upgraded the lithium-ion battery in the Ioniq EV models, bumping up the car’s advertised range from 124 to 170 miles, the suit relays.
Although the lithium-ion batteries in Hyundai’s Kona EV and Ioniq EV offer high power and a long life cycle, they are also, as the lawsuit tells it, a cause for concern.
The problem with lithium-ion batteries
Although lithium-ion batteries offer singular advantages—namely power and range—for electric vehicles, it’s been well documented that an overcharged lithium-ion battery can unexpectedly combust, causing fires that might be more difficult to extinguish thanks to the battery’s internal components. This problem exists due to a phenomenon called “thermal runaway,” which occurs when an increase in temperature releases energy that further increases temperature. According to the lawsuit, thermal runaway is responsible for at least 80 percent of reported lithium-ion battery fires.
The lawsuit alleges Hyundai, in an attempt to offer competitive electric vehicle options, has pushed the travel ranges for the Kona and Ioniq well beyond what’s safe for already risky lithium-ion batteries, the overcharging of which can cause one of several exothermic reactions that can then produce spontaneous ignition. The suit explains:
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, proper management of the electrical loads (i.e., electrical balancing) among cells in a pack helps maintain overall charge and discharge performance within an acceptable range, and prevent overdischarge or overcharge conditions. Because temperature is a key indicator of cell electrical performance (e.g., hotter cells may discharge or charge more quickly than colder cells), thermal management strategies must be integrated into the battery system design to monitor charging and discharging events and mitigate potentially problematic conditions.
Plaintiff alleges that the lithium-ion batteries and related management systems of the Class Vehicles are defective and unsafe in that they fail to prevent thermal runaway and spontaneous ignition of the batteries in the Class Vehicles.”
As the case tells it, the fires plaguing the Hyundai Kona EV and Ioniq EV, such as those reported in South Korea, did not stem from any type of external abuse, but rather an internal failure of the battery while the cars were in park.
Despite this, the automaker “continues to sell the Class Vehicles in the United States,” the lawsuit reads. Hyundai is also aware of widespread reports that the same battery it uses for the Kona EV and Ioniq EV have been linked to dozens of Chevy Bolt fires, as well as similar issues in certain Tesla and BMW models, the suit says:
In other words, not only are the risks of lithium-ion battery fires well-documented, there is an established and growing history of such fires regarding the battery used in the Class Vehicles.”
Overall, the case contends Hyundai has failed to be forthcoming with regard to the Kona EV’s and Ioniq’s travel ranges, which were advertised based on “unreasonable usage of the battery to the extent that the risk of fire was vastly increased.”
Who’s covered by the lawsuit?
The suit looks to cover all persons or entities in the U.S. who are current or former owners and/or lessees of a 2019-2021 Kona EV and/or 2020 Ioniq EV. Alternatively, the case looks to represent all persons or entities in California who fit the same criteria.
How do I add my name to the class action?
For most class action cases, there’s nothing you need to do to “join” or be considered part of the lawsuit. There’s no list to add your name to, no email you need to send, and no phone number to call. It’s only if and when a case settles, which is no guarantee, that someone who’s covered by the suit would have to, for instance, file a claim for whatever compensation the court approves.
For the most part, class actions typically take a while to work their way through the legal system, usually toward a settlement, dismissal or arbitration outside of court. This means it might be a while before there’s any significant movement on this case.
For now, it’s best for Hyundai drivers to stay informed. Sign up for ClassAction.org’s free weekly newsletter, containing news on recent class action cases and settlements, right here.