DETROIT (AP) — The past five years have been rough for Hyundai in the U.S. as it scrambled to catch up with a massive shift in consumer preferences from cars to trucks and SUVs.
The South Korean auto company ran through multiple leaders as it added utility vehicles to a car-heavy lineup, but sales fell after peaking in 2016.
Early last year, Jose Munoz left Nissan to become the latest CEO of Hyundai’s operations in the Americas. Sales rose in 2019 as the new SUVs took hold. Then the coronavirus hit.
Munoz spoke to The Associated Press about Hyundai, the pandemic and the future of the auto business. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What has it been like managing through the pandemic and how has Hyundai weathered it?
A: One thing I’ve learned is the better you are doing in your business before you get into trouble, the better you’re going to navigate. We were doing really, really well in the market the last few months, last year and January and February. And this put us in a very good place to navigate. We immediately created a crisis team. We took advantage of the great know how of our headquarters. South Korea has been probably the country which managed best. Then we launched a number of actions, the Hyundai Assurance job loss protection program. We also implemented an extended warranty.
Q: The number of cases is growing, especially in Southern and Western states. Are you worried that we might have to go back to restrictions?
A: Nobody wants to go through that. That would mean monitoring every single day. We worked very diligently to ensure that dealers were in a position to sell digitally. If this situation gets back to what it was, and then we need to shut down the dealers, we will continue to operate with digital procedures.
Q: There has been talk about a government stimulus to spur auto sales, which are down from last year. Is that needed?
A: I’ve always thought that the automotive industry is the engine of the economy, considering that in America there are about 10 million jobs which depend on this industry. There are many, many parts suppliers who depend on the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). Not to mention the dealers. Some companies had to lay off, some did employee furloughs. We kept them all, maintained all their benefits. So I strongly believe that this stimulus plan will be the right thing to do for the country. It would secure a lot of jobs, and you would create a positive action by consumers.
Q: Would the stimulus be a government incentive to buy a vehicle?
A: I think the OEMs should have skin in the game, and then also participate probably equally. Then you can make some elements for the vehicles to qualify. It may be made in America, or fulfilling certain environmental requirements. I think there are many ways to make it work.
Q: Hyundai has invested a lot in hybrid and electric technology without a lot of returns yet. Why keep doing that?
A: Our company is really very much committed to the future of mobility and to the green and newest technologies.
Q: Do you see a time when everyone will be driving electric vehicles?
A: I think all of the studies that have been made in the past have missed the time. And what we have seen is that that optimism hasn’t happened. There is no doubt about it that the technology is becoming more and more popular, more utilized. So the ranges are longer, the costs are getting lower. I don’t see it immediately on a very short-term or mid-term that the EV is going to be the dominant player in our market. Yet we’re going to continue to see an increase, which is going to be different by state. When you live in California you see a much higher share of users which are utilizing the EVs, the plug-in hybrids, the hybrids and even the hydrogen powered vehicles. So is there is there going to be a time? Nobody knows exactly but it is growing for sure.