SEOGWIPO, South Korea -- When Lee Ki-Sang was tapped to lead Hyundai Motor Group's eco-car powertrain division in 2005, rival Toyota Motor Corp. already had an eight-year lead in hybrid vehicles.
Due to a lack of Korean engineers with that kind of experience, it took Hyundai nearly two years just to assemble a relevant team. The Korean auto company didn't launch its first gasoline-electric drivetrain until 2010, in the Sonata Hybrid.
Now, Hyundai and Kia plan to leapfrog to the front of the industry's pack.
Their catch-up plan: Launch 26 hybrids, plug-ins, electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles by 2020. When accomplished, Lee promises, the rollout will catapult the group to the global No. 2 spot in electrified cars, ahead of all automakers but Toyota.
It's a risky but necessary gambit. After years of trailing in electrification, Hyundai and Kia see no way of meeting future emissions rules without harnessing the power of electrons.
The two export-dependent brands face the same challenges as other automakers in meeting those rules: having to place costly bets on sometimes unproven, next-generation drivetrains and meeting different consumer tastes and regulations in markets as diverse as the U.S., China and Europe. A wrong bet could drain valuable capital and steer the company down an expensive blind alley.
The Hyundai-Kia group dominates its home market, but that market isn't large enough to provide the solid sales base that other makers, say General Motors in the U.S. or Volkswagen AG in Europe, can count on to support economies of scale in developing critical new components.
"I have to prepare for all possibilities," Lee told Automotive News on the sidelines of an electric vehicle expo here. "It's a headache, but we have to adapt to that.
"It's really difficult for us."
Hence a scattershot approach. The 26 planned vehicles include at least 12 hybrids, six plug-in hybrids, two EVs and two fuel cell vehicles spread across the Hyundai and Kia lineups.
The rollout covers several nameplates already on sale or heading to lots soon. From Hyundai, they include the Sonata Hybrid, Sonata Plug-in, Ioniq Hybrid, Ioniq Plug-in, Ioniq Electric, Grandeur Hybrid and a fuel cell version of the Tucson. The Grandeur is sold in the U.S. as the Azera, but slow sales there make it unclear whether the next-generation Grandeur will come to U.S. showrooms.
At Kia, the list includes the Optima Hybrid, Optima Plug-in, Soul EV, Cadenza Hybrid and the upcoming Niro hybrid compact crossover.
"This is the basement that we will build upon," said Lee, senior vice president for the Hyundai Motor Group's Eco Technology Center, which works on electrified drivetrains.
The timing of the electrification push is problematic. The green-car surge comes as ultralow pump prices fuel a frenzy for trucks. Through February, truck sales accounted for 59 percent of overall U.S. sales but just 29 percent of Hyundai-Kia volume. Dealers are skeptical about the direction.
"I'm also worrying," Lee said of gasoline prices.
But given an eco-car penetration rate that he called "miserable," the group has "no choice" but to forge ahead, Lee said. Electrified cars account for a mere 1 percent of global sales at both the Hyundai and Kia brands.