Lee Ki-sang, the head of the hybrid vehicle team at Hyundai Motor’s Namyang Technology Research Center, is confident about the future of Korea’s hybrid car. “We can develop a hybrid car that is way better than Honda’s by 2009,” he says. “Korea has battery manufacturers included in the world’s top 10 and boasts the most advanced electronics technology. Because we are working with such companies, I am confident that we’ll make a great achievement.”
Hybrid cars are energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars that combine an on-board rechargeable battery and a gasoline-powered engine. Japanese car makers such as Honda and Toyota dominate over 90 percent of the global hybrid market, while Hyundai is only at a stage where it is test-producing some vehicles for government use.
Getting ready to compete with Japan
The Namyang Technology Research Center is where all the work on Hyundai's hybrid vehicles is taking place. Concerned about security, Hyundai has never shown the center to the public before. Entering the lab, one can see some 100 researchers working at their computers or various testing devices in an open space of around 1,000 sq.m. The core component of a hybrid car is the hybrid control unit (HCU) that controls all vehicle systems including the engine, power and brake systems. Some researchers were testing the HCU with high-tech devices with three or four computer monitors. Others were testing Japanese and Korean vehicles in a workshop.
Hyundai plans to produce 3,390 hybrid cars for the government by 2008 and start commercial sales from 2009 with its Avante Hybrid, which is one of the models being tested at the workshop. The Avante Hybrid will be Hyundai's flagship in the category, which it plans to sell both at home and in the U.S. where it will compete with the Honda Civic Hybrid.
Technology Works, Now Hyundai Must Lower Hybrid Prices
Although Hyundai Motor started its hybrid project in 1997, it didn't take the idea seriously because the company thought the vehicles would be quickly replaced by hydrogen fuel-cell cars. But favorable sales of Japanese hybrids in the U.S. and movements in North America and Europe to tighten regulations on carbon dioxide emissions prompted the company to change its mind.
Having already supplied Click Hybrid vehicles to the government in 2004, Hyundai has proved that its technology is as good as Japan’s. The problem is the price tag. “The biggest obstacle we have in developing hybrids is not technology but cost,” Lee says. “We still can’t procure parts like motors, inverters and batteries as cheaply as the Japanese car makers.”
As a result, Hyundai wants all its core components to be Korean-made by 2009. “It’s not easy to develop car batteries that can endure high temperatures and absorb a strong impact,” a team member says. “But we’ll do our best to produce hybrid cars with Korean-made components, so that we can enhance our competitiveness