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[Reporter's notebook] BMW offers plenty of smoke but little light

Aug 08,2018
BMW held an emergency press conference on Monday to do damage control as its cars in Korea continue to catch on fire.

One notable moment was an apologetic bow from BMW Korea Chairman Kim Hyo-joon - his first public appearance since the cars started going up in flames earlier this year.

But the company continued to insist that, in terms of the cause of the fires, it has already told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: A faulty exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system is to blame.

Period.

More than 30 vehicles have caught on fire on Korean roads this year and BMW owners are scared and annoyed at having to wait for their cars to be inspected.

Two weeks ago, the number started rising, but Kim kept out of public view. Neither did anyone from the German headquarters make a public appearance. The most significant part of the luxury car’s image - engineering safety - was being trashed, but no one seemed to care.

The company’s attitude seemed to change after Korea’s Ministry of Transport announced Sunday it will launch a probe into the case and urged the automaker to re-submit a report on the fires and what was causing them.

At Monday’s press conference, executives and researchers from BMW headquarters finally showed themselves.

They insisted that a diesel engine component called the EGR is the cause of the fires.

BMW spent more than 30 minutes of the one-hour event to explain how a malfunctioning EGR could lead to a fire, using a well-prepared Powerpoint presentation filled with diagrams and graphics of its four-cylinder diesel engine.

When coolant leaks from the EGR cooler, explained Johann Ebenbichler, vice president of BMW’s corporate quality team, gas emissions from the engine are too hot when they meet the accumulated sediment in the EGR pipe. The sediment combusts, causing the engine to burst into flames.

Could there be a possibility that another defective part caused the fires?

“No,” was the answer.

Why are so many fire breaking out in Korea over an short span of time - and only Korea?

That took a longer answer.

Ebenbichler explained that the EGR problem is not Korea-specific because the defect rate for EGRs in diesel vehicles in Korea is a mere 0.1 percent while the global average is 0.12 percent.

BMW categorizes the level of EGR defects from Level 1 to 3, Ebenbichler explained. Level 1 indicates a small hole in the intake manifold. Level 2 is reached when there is a “small fire in the engine” and Level 3 indicates a “larger thermal event.”

So if Korea’s EGRs are safer overall than those in all other countries in the world, how many BMWs in the world have had level 3 EGR “thermal events”?

BMW refused to disclose the number, saying they are still collecting evidence.

BMW Korea did say that this was the first recall to be carried out due to EGR defects in any market.

So the big questions remain unanswered.


jin.eunsoo@joongang.co.kr