Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group, Microsoft Corp. and the Korean Institute for Information Technology Advancement (IITA) open a research and development center that will focus on advanced automotive technologies.

Called the Automotive IT Innovation Center, the facility is located in a newly opened Hyundai research building in the Seoul suburb of Uiwang.

“Presently, the facility is staffed by about 50 researchers and technicians from both the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group and Microsoft,” a HKAG source says.

“Essentially, they will partner with various smaller electronics companies to develop advanced technologies for vehicle applications.”

Participating electronic companies will receive funding support from the South Korean government, up to 200 million won ($158,000) per project, the source says.

A government statement says the IITA initially will provide 11 billion won ($8.7 million) to help local software companies working with the center. About 20 companies per year will receive support for specific R&D projects.

Along with providing the facility, both Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and Kia Motors Corp. will supply vehicles and other support services to the partnership.

HKAG and Microsoft in May signed a long-term agreement to develop advanced-generation, voice-activated infotainment systems. The center will provide the first application of such a system on a Hyundai or Kia vehicle, scheduled for release in the U.S. in 2010, the source confirms.

The opening ceremony for the center was held off-site at HKAG headquarters in Seoul.

Present were Kia President Chung Eui-sun and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

“Microsoft and Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group share a similar vision for the role that information technology will play in connecting people to information, communications and entertainment while they are in their cars,” Ballmer says in a prepared statement. “We’re excited about the opportunities the new Automotive IT Innovation Center will create.”

Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo says the center represents a new platform of cooperation between private companies and the government and will serve as a role model for other industries.

Korea’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy issued a news release quoting Ballmer as saying, “Microsoft will make the utmost effort to help South Korean companies with competence in automotive information technology to make inroads into the global markets.”

Kia and Microsoft separately are involved in the Microsoft RoboChamps 2008 virtual robotics competition in which contestants from around the world are challenged to develop automotive IT convergence systems.

As a sponsor, Kia is providing the competition with 3-D rendered models of five vehicles, including the newly launched Soul, Borrego and Pro-cee’d.

Kia says the program enables it to put its vehicles before a global audience of 10 million IT professionals and also helps nurture future IT automotive specialists.