DETROIT — Clogged oil holes, electrical shorts and leaking brake fluid are just some of the safety issues that have sparked multiple fires and forced Hyundai and Kia to recall millions of vehicles over the past of the last seven years.

Now, hyundaithe larger of the two affiliated Korean automakers, promoted its North American security chief to global rank – an implicit recognition by the company that it needs to approach security more robustly.

Executive Canadian Brian Latouf, who joined Hyundai in 2019 after 27 years at General Motors, says he will focus on data analysis and testing to catch problems earlier and fix them.

As part of the company’s focus on safety, Hyundai is building a $51.6 million lab near Ann Arbor, Michigan, with an electronic scanner to examine parts for problems . At the site, the company will test vehicle maneuvers, including steering and braking, and evaluate electric vehicle batteries. An outside track will allow vehicles to accelerate to road speed so testers can detect problems.

The lab is expected to be completed in the fall of next year.

Along with elevating Latouf to global safety chief, Hyundai has appointed a new safety vice president to try to ensure safety is given greater consideration in the design of new vehicles. Latouf, a mechanical engineer by training, said the company wanted to spot problems early and take action.

“You have to have a really good data analysis office on emerging issues, investigate quickly and address them,” Latouf, 58, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “If you let them linger, the risk increases, the safety hazard increases.”

Latouf spent most of his career at General Motors. He was previously Director of GM Canada’s Canadian Regional Engineering Center (CREC) in Oshawa, Ontario.

Latouf now has a security team in place at the head office in Seoul. And the security group in North America has grown from 12 employees when it started in the company to 40 now.

FIRES AND ENGINE PROBLEMS

The work is enormous. The Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit group that successfully petitioned U.S. regulators to seek out Hyundai and KIA recalls, says automakers have recalled 8.4 million vehicles for fires and engine problems since 2015. More than two dozen recalls involved more than 20 models from model years 2006 through 2021.

Additionally, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating 3 million vehicles made by automakers from model years 2011 through 2016. NHTSA says it has received 161 complaints of engine fires, some of which occurred in vehicles that had already been recalled.

The agency, which began a technical analysis late last year, said it would assess whether previous recalls covered enough vehicles. It will also monitor the effectiveness of the recalls, “as well as the long-term viability of related programs and non-safety related field actions by Hyundai and Kia.”

In June 2018, NHTSA said it had received complaints from owners of more than 3,100 fires, 103 injuries, and one death. Hyundai and Kia were fined by NHTSA in 2020 for moving too slowly to recall vehicles prone to engine failure.

One critic, Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, noted that Hyundai’s enhanced safety programs are focused on future vehicles, which Brooks says won’t help owners of the company’s existing cars. ‘company.

“ON-GOING” ISSUES

The center, Brooks said, continues to receive complaints of engine failures that Hyundai and Kia won’t fix because owners didn’t sign up in time for a company-issued knock sensor to detect engine problems. .

“There’s still a consumer issue that needs to be addressed,” Brooks said.

Hyundai says owners can go online to report issues, which it will fix.

Meanwhile, recalls have continued for Hyundai and Kia, some as recent as May this year for problems with seat belt pretensioners. In September of last year, the problem was the risk of engine fire. Latouf said recent Hyundai engines have significantly lower firing rates and knock sensors detect problems so they can be repaired before failures occur.

Like Hyundai, Kia was forced to establish a US security office as part of its deal with the government. Kia says it settled the case to avoid a lengthy legal battle. The automaker, which has not commented on this story, said it intends to improve its process for handling recalls to make things right for customers.

At General Motors, Latouf had been put in charge of safety after a series of recalls for faulty ignition switches that could shut down engines and disable airbags in the event of a crash. At least 124 people have been killed in a series of accidents.

Latouf said he learned from helping rebuild the auto giant’s safety department and adopted some of those practices at Hyundai. One is a “Speak Up For Safety” program that urges employees to report issues while driving and testing vehicles. Reports go directly to Latouf’s office.

“We get hundreds of them, and some of them have actually led to recalls,” he said.

With their thousands of components and millions of lines of software code, cars are notoriously complex, Latouf said, and every automaker experiences safety issues and recalls. He said he expects new Hyundai safety programs to provide warnings early enough to limit the size of recalls and strengthen consumer perception of the brand.

“We try to keep their faith, to make sure that if there is a problem, we will react to it,” he said. “We don’t just care about sales, numbers, growth and technology. We also care about the customer.”