The Hyundai Group, of which Kia is a part, has recently upgraded the emissions cell facilities at its technical centre just outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, to include diesel testing.
While this could, at first sight, appear to be an ill-timed move in the wake of the Volkswagen Group diesel emissions-cheating scandal, Kia insists that the travails of VW and ‘dieselgate’ will have no bearing on its decision about whether to introduce diesel to the US.
“We don’t see that the VW scandal has impacted upon us in respect to diesel at all,” says John W Juriga, Director of Powertrain at the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Centre Inc (HATCI).
“The biggest impact is not from the consumer but from the price of fuel. With diesel the same price as gas [petrol] or cheaper, is there enough of a differential to create an incentive?”
Diesel powertrains would be well suited to the Sorento which Kia produces in the US at its West Point, Georgia, manufacturing plant. They would also sit well in any replacement for the large Mojave/Borrego SUV, previewed by the Telluride concept unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January.
“Diesel is something we have been investigating for quite a few years,” says Juriga, “CO2 is a huge issue here. US customers may not care as much [about it] as those in Europe, but we still have to meet greenhouse gas and CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] regulations. We will work with Europe on diesel, although how we run the tests will be different. But the engines wouldn’t be made in the US.”
Diesel will add yet another layer of complexity to the work done at Ann Arbor, which is already having to come to terms with all-electric vehicles (Soul EV), hybrids (Optima HEV and forthcoming plug-in PHEV) and, in time, fuel-cell cars.
And the Korean Group already knows all about the long reach of America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), having paid $700 million in fines and compensation at the end of 2014 for overstating the fuel economy of several models.
While those failings were on nothing like the scale of the emissions-cheating by the VW Group, they demonstrate how difficult it can be to keep on the right side of American bureaucracy.
So, have new safeguards been incorporated into HATCI’s testing methods to ensure Hyundai and Kia are never caught out again?
“Just wait there a minute,” says Juriga as he disappears from the room. A minute later he returns with a book about three inches thick and running to more than 1,000 pages.
“That is the Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] on the protection of the environment, and while not all of it relates to the auto industry, a lot of it does,” he says. “The problem is that there are a lot of variations. In places it uses phrases like ‘use good engineering judgment’.
“The problems we had were not related to this site but went back to Korea, and although our procedures had a lot of ability they were open to different interpretations. The EPA outlined certain things we needed to do as a company, so we sat down with them to review our procedures.
“We’ve standardised our procedures and processes and edited the CFR down to something more manageable. We’ve instituted a checklist just like a 747 pilot might use, introduced more individual accountability for each test and brought in an outside company to review what we’ve done.”
HATCI Michigan has been in place for almost 11 years, although Hyundai and Kia have had a presence in the Ann Arbor area since the 1980s. The location was chosen because it is close to the EPA headquarters, and also because Hyundai and Kia had – and still have ¬– access to Chrysler’s proving ground at nearby Chelsea, in a deal dating from the days when the two groups had a joint manufacturing agreement for the Korean Theta engine.
“Any car the EPA selects for certification comes to us first, including electrified vehicles,” says Juriga. “We started as a powertrain lab, and every powertrain for the US still comes to Ann Arbor first.
“Then it goes to metropolitan Detroit, then Encino in California and also Denver for altitude testing and Phoenix for hot city driving, and finally we have a flexible choice of locations – Quebec, Florida, Death Valley and International Falls for winter testing, because there it’s as cold as it can get in the US.
“Our Focus is on engines made in the US – the Theta 2.0-litre turbo and 2.4 naturally aspirated engines and the Nu 1.8- and 2.0-litre. The Gamma 1.6 is soon going to be made in Mexico, so we’ll be involved with that. V6s are now made in Korea so they’re not tested in the US.
“We also support the Alabama engine and Georgia manufacturing plants with a strenuous durability schedule. We do some vehicle engineering, primarily on interiors, tuning things like seats and cupholder sizes for the US. We have a store full of coffee cups common in the US.
“We work on connectivity optimisation for North America, component testing like the opening and closing of doors, and we have polymer and metallurgical labs to test things that come in from suppliers.
“More and more we are involved with validation and advanced development projects, looking at using EGR [exhaust gas recirculation] in more ways than in the past, and even compression ignition for petrol engines.
“Down the road we are also going to need greater electrification of vehicles – starter generators, higher voltage systems, smaller pumps, changes to vehicle architecture and new battery technology and chemistry. A lot of new technology we have worked on will be introduced in the coming years.”