Lost Tech: The early days of autonomous vehicles in South Korea
...and how South Korea gave up this promising tech.
Almost everyone in this world will acknowledge that an autonomous vehicle is currently the hottest topic in the entire automotive industry. Billions of dollars and thousands of workers are invested into developing self-driving cars, with technology continuing to make a progress to completely exclude human involvement on the public roads. While researching this topic recently, I came across a very surprising fun fact that autonomous cars' first time driving on public roads happened in South Korea.
Professor Han Min-hong.
The first South Korean self-driving cars were made from Korea University Division of Industrial Management Engineering, lead by professor Han Min-hong. The project first began to develop a vehicle that can efficiently deliver the military supplies, but as the students strongly backlashed about developing a military vehicle, Han revised the project to exclude the military part.
In November 1991, the first South Korean self-driving car, KAV-1 (Korea Autonomous Vehicle-1), drove around the school field. Two cameras installed on the dashboard analyzed the road, and the ultrasonic sensors helped the car to prevent a collision with an unexpected obstacle.
In June 1993, Han and his team let their modified Asia Rocsta drive through Seoul - the first time that an autonomous vehicle self-drove on the public roads. The car drove for 17 km (10.5 miles) at 60 km/h (37 mph) safely.
Two years later, Han's self-driving cars drove through the Gyeongbu Expressway, reaching up to 100 km/h (62 mph) and driving comfortably during nighttime. Han said that after showcasing his and his team's vehicles in the international conferences, Volkswagen AG and Mercedes-Benz have praised and shown interest in his technology.
Han applied for South Korean government's support for the project, but his application was rejected due to the low interest in innovative technologies at the time. Han said that he once heard 'why to struggle to develop technology when you can just buy one?' from others. Despite Han and his team's arduous effort to continue developing self-driving cars, his technology was (and still is) never implemented in the Korean car industry. Han is continuing to develop self-driving cars on his own without the nation's support, even after his retirement.
Han criticized that Korean companies are intimidated by each other and aren't cooperative and that the self-driving technology will be able to make remarkable progress if the companies collaborated. He also urged South Korean government to give support for the many startups and other innovative technologies that are unnoticed.
As much as I was surprised to see how a small university team developed high-level autonomous cars from a long time ago, I was also upset by how this technology was shunned and that many South Korean car manufacturers and startups are now relying on foreign parts and computers. I'm now left wondering when will South Korean society ditch its narrow viewpoints and close-mindedness...