WASHINGTON -- The Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday said they have asked top U.S. executives at Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. to testify at a Nov. 14 hearing on reports of engine fires involving vehicles from the Korean automakers.
The request comes after the Center for Auto Safety raised concerns last week about fires in vehicles not involved in collisions.
In May 2017, NHTSA opened a formal investigation into the recall of nearly 1.7 million Hyundai and Kia vehicles over engine defects.
A South Korean whistleblower in 2016 reported concerns to NHTSA, which has been probing the timeliness of three recalls carried out in the United States and whether they covered enough vehicles.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said a non-collision fire death had been reported last year in a 2014 Kia Soul. "We’ve got to get to the bottom of what's causing these fires," Nelson said in a statement. "Car owners need to know if their vehicles are safe."
The letter to the automakers also signed by Sen. John Thune, who chairs the committee, said the hearing will also "examine efforts to mitigate vehicle fires and promptly identify and respond to defects that may pose a fire risk" and invites the chief executives of Hyundai and Kia's U.S. units to testify or their designee.
A NHTSA spokeswoman did not immediately comment.
The center renewed calls for the automakers to recall almost 3 million crossovers and sedans for potential non-collision fire risk last Friday. It's asking for recalls of all 2011-14 Kia Sorrento, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata and Hyundai Santa Fe models, as well as all 2010-15 Kia Souls.
The group petitioned NHTSA in June to investigate complaints of non-collision fires and burned wires. It is now putting pressure on the companies to issue a recall because the safety agency's review has not resulted in any action and the automakers' current remedy isn't working, said Jason Levine, executive director of the center, in a statement.
Hundreds of complaints
Since June, the center and NHTSA have received more than 220 complaints of spontaneous fire-related incidents, and federal regulators say they also have received complaints about fires resulting from collisions. There has been at least one non-collision fire-related fatality when an Ohio man burned to death last year after getting in his mother’s 2014 Kia Soul.
The automakers and NHTSA have pointed to recalls for engine fixes in 2015 and 2017 that they said could rectify the issue. But the Center for Auto Safety says those recalls didn't go far enough, and that some vehicles have been repaired only to catch fire later.
Hyundai said it recalled more than one million 2011-2014 Sonata and 2013-2014 Santa Fe Sport vehicles in two separate actions in 2015 and 2017 to address a manufacturing issue that could lead to bearing wear and engine failure. In some very rare instances -- a rate of less than 1 percent -- Hyundai said the affected engines have caught on fire. The automaker added that an "exhaustive study" has confirmed that there is no defect trend outside of that identified in the related recalls causing non-collision fires in Hyundai vehicles.
"Hyundai continues to make every effort to contact customers who have not had the recall completed, including through traditional mailings, digital correspondence, owner website alerts, and in-vehicle notification through Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics systems and its monthly vehicle health reports," Hyundai said in a statement.
Kia said it's encouraging customers to get open recall work done as soon as possible," including certain 2011-2014 model year Sorento and Optima vehicles identified in June of 2017."
Kia said in a statement: "KMA recognizes that customer safety is paramount and is committed to addressing every thermal incident. To quickly and effectively address these incidents, KMA is using in-house and third party fire investigation companies, engaged an independent senior fire expert to evaluate the results of such fire event investigations and is consulting with a recent former head of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation to evaluate the organization’s response to these incidents."
NHTSA is still considering the Center's petition after receiving a second tranche of information on July 24, the agency said in a statement provided to Automotive News. It has sent letters to Hyundai, Kia and six other manufacturers seeking information.
Levine said Wednesday that he’s happy to see the increased attention on the issue.
“We’re glad to see Sen. [Bill] Nelson and the Congress committee call Hyundai and Kia up to explain to the Senate and, more broadly, the American people exactly why so many of their cars are catching on fire and what they plan on doing to fix the problem,” Levine told Automotive News. “If they’re not going to provide the answers directly to the consumers and they’re not providing the answers to NHTSA in a public fashion, hopefully, the Senate will be able to get the answers out of them.”
Vince Bond and Eric Kulisch contributed to this report.
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