When Hyundai Motor Co. opened its first "research and development" facility in 1974, it hardly justified the term R&D. The Korean engineers were doing little more than simple facelifts on Mitsubishi-engineered vehicles.
Ten years later, Hyundai's R&D remained at a basic level, still using Mitsubishi powertrains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world continued to regard Hyundai as just a maker of low-priced vehicles using licensed or last-generation technology.
But a focused program was being instituted for Hyundai to develop its own powertrains, to fulfill a dream to become "a powertrain company like Honda," as company executives recall. That would not be easy, as the 1984 staff of 100 employees included few with any engineering experience in powertrain development. They embarked on a trial-and-error learning program, with guidance from freelancing Japanese engineers.
And finally a four-cylinder, 12-valve 1.5-L engine, dubbed "Alpha," emerged some six years later. Installed on the 1991 Scoupe, the engine was a simple design, rated at 90-92 hp (67-69 kW). It was essentially "follower-level" technology, but it was a confidence builder. Two years later, a turbo version rated at 115 hp (87 kw) was introduced. However, the world continued to see the company as the low-price, low-tech manufacturer.
The underpinnings for a world-class R&D operation were being put in place by forward-looking management. When the Hyundai Genesis was named 2009 North American Car of the Year, it featured both a new Hyundai-engineered DOHC V8 engine, plus the well-regarded "Lambda" 3.8-L V6. Both state-of-the-art engines were designed and developed by that once lightly regarded R&D operation.
Clearly, Hyundai R&D—now well-equipped and staffed with top home-grown talent—had arrived. It took less than 20 years with many of the key installations made during the fast-paced 2003-2006 period.
Hyundai today employs some 2000 degreed engineers (a third of them with advanced degrees) in powertrain R&D. The company's global R&D operations have approximately 10,000 employees, 9000 of them based in Korea. And the former "students" at Hyundai are selling their engine technology (the four-cylinder Theta engine family) to their former teacher Mitsubishi, as well as to Chrysler.
Hyundai is proud of the Theta family, its first production engines with direct fuel injection (on the 2.4-L version). Executives cite the US$57 million royalty income from Mitsubishi and Chrysler. But it is the 4.6/5.0 L Tau V8 of which the company is most proud, according to Dr. Woong-chul Yang, President of R&D.
The DOHC Tau is not a high-volume engine. It always was intended to demonstrate technological prowess for premium cars (dual variable valve timing, variable intake, and high compression in a forthcoming 5.0 L version). To date, the 4.6 L version featured in the Genesis and Equus luxury sedans is symbolic of the rise to a level where the Hyundai name also can carry premium nameplates.
The company maintains the vision of a powertrain company at its core, but Dr. Yang noted that Hyundai has nurtured a carefully assessed group of automotive competencies, under a "Technology Self-Reliance" umbrella. The approach has been to buy top technology, model by model, so that it also provides an in-house learning experience.
In each succeeding product generation, the engineers methodically incorporated more of Hyundai's own engineering. The 1994 Accent was the first model with a Hyundai-developed platform and powertrain (including a later version of the Alpha engine), evolved from the Mitsubishi-engineered Excel. The 1988 Sonata was basically a Mitsubishi-engineered midsize with Giugiaro (Italdesign) styling, but the 1998 model contained a significant amount of Hyundai engineering.
And the 2011 edition of Sonata is pure Hyundai—there is no residual Mitsubishi technology. Indeed, there is preciously little from Mitsubishi remaining throughout the entire product line.
The engineering facilities and capabilities have been developed very quickly in the 16 years since the Accent. It wasn't easy, because all the Mitsubishi-sourced technologies, not only the four-cylinder and V6 engines, had permeated vehicle engineering and continued to appear in various areas.
It's noteworthy that the carmaker that sought to be a powertrain company today has three families of four-cylinder engines, a 3.3/3.8-L V6, the Tau V8 group, and diesel groups with displacements ranging from 1.1 to 3.0 L. There are also commercial diesels from 3.9 to 10 L and larger. The 2.0/2.2-L four-cylinder is Euro 5 emissions-compliant.
A tour of the R&D center at Namyang, opened in 1996, showed seemingly endless lines of engine test stands, in addition to engine dynamometers, brake and chassis dynamometers, and a road simulator.
Although it still buys some transmissions, Hyundai also has been developing its own, including the high-volume front-drive six-speed. The rear-drive six-speed in the Genesis is a ZF unit with the V8, and an Aisin-sourced gearbox with the V6. Hyundai reportedly has its own rear-drive eight-speed in final development.
Building comprehensive R&D capabilities
The Namyang complex has three wind tunnel facilities, including an aero tunnel that can provide wind gusts up to 200 km/h (124 mph). This tunnel can accommodate all vehicles except Class 8 trucks—and although Hyundai makes the big rigs, the wind tunnel tests are done with 7/8-scale models. This tunnel, installed in 1999, is the largest in Asia, according to company executives.
The others are the hot climate and cold climate tunnel, installed in 1998, and one that Hyundai engineers speak most admiringly of: the snow- and rain-making tunnel installed in 2003. Yes, the company even has equipment to create an instant blizzard.
Crash-test facilities also are based at Namyang, including a car-to-car lab finished in late 2005, which can run vehicle-impact tests up to 100 km/h (62 mph).
Namyang has medium-size proving grounds, 70 km (43.5 mi) of roads, including a high-speed oval and 71 different road surfaces. The company also maintains a larger facility (116 km/72 mi of roads) in California's Mojave desert, completed in 2005.
Hyundai has a separate R&D facility, called its "Eco-Technology Research Center," in Mabuk, South Korea, which opened in 2005. A more secure area than the Namyang complex, it does a lot of basic research along with advanced eco-technology, including alternate fuels and fuel cells.
The company does, however, work with partners on emerging and "fusion" technologies, which require specialized expertise and involve greater risk than those with a more-defined market. One example is LG Chem, the Korean battery maker that is supplying the cells for the lithium-polymer batteries in its hybrids (as well as cells for the Chevrolet Volt).
Co-op projects also are based at the Eco-Tech center for work on nano-type and other advanced materials, including eco-plastics.
Hyundai also maintains small R&D facilities in the U.S., Germany, Japan, and India. The Japanese operation was set up to provide hybrid-electric vehicle expertise. That function was transferred to Korea, and the Japanese engineers and scientists currently are doing other electronics work. The German unit provides some technology expertise with diesels, the Indian one with information technology (IT), and the U.S. with emissions calibrations.
However, their primary tasks are to help tailor vehicles for the regional markets, including emissions certifications, since the Namyang and Mabuk complexes are sized, equipped, and staffed to handle the primary responsibility for R&D.
The Superior, MI, facility near Ann Arbor—Hyundai America Technical Center Inc. (HATCI) —supports fleet tests for hybrids. It is expected to do the same for forthcoming fuel-cell vehicles.