The car of Han Min-hong, 79, was born in 1993, a decade before Tesla was founded by Elon Musk.
Two years later, with no one behind the wheel, his car traveled the 300 kilometers from Seoul to the port city of Busan on the country’s busiest highway.
A desktop computer, equipped with a screen and keyboard, sat in the passenger seat while Mr. Han was in the back.
“It was extraordinary”, remembers the inventor who, with his team of enthusiasts, devoted hours to this “unpublished project”.
At that time, South Korea, more oriented towards heavy industry, was still far from being the technological power that it has since become.
Mr. Han recalls hearing himself say: “Why develop a new technology when you can pay for it?”
His projects were seen as risky. Some worried about whether he had life insurance and whether his wife was aware of his “crazy activities”.
“Bold and risky”
The professor was so convinced that his cars were safe that he rarely fastened his seat belt.
However, the government, which did not see the point of investing in its project, stopped funding its research at the University of Korea.
Today, Elon Musk’s electric car business is a juggernaut weighing in at $ 600 billion as Mr. Han has only one employee left at his small business in Yongin, south of Seoul, where it develops warning systems for autonomous vehicles. Mr. Musk is “formidable and exceptional”, says Mr. Han, admiringly.
His invention could have allowed South Korea to now dominate this sector, he regrets.
Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at the Institute of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, viewed the footage from the 1990s for AFP.
For him, no doubt, they “seems to be among the best work done on autonomous vehicles at this time.”
“The professor and his colleague are not even sitting in the driver’s seat”, it was “very daring and risky”, according to him.
In his view, it is regrettable that funding for the project has ceased and “In hindsight, it was certainly not a wise decision.”
Korea University qualifies Mr. Han as “pioneer and hero on the international scene of artificial intelligence”.
The professor also designed South Korea’s first car navigation system and a mini-helicopter that prefigured drones.
He is regarded in his country as a genius ahead of his time, and videos from the 1990s have been viewed more than 1.5 million times since they were posted on YouTube in February.
Autonomous vehicles are now the subject of a bitter technological battle. Giants like Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are spending billions of dollars in this promising market.
Last year, Tesla announced that it was “very close” of level 5 of autonomous driving technology, which corresponds to full autonomy.
For Han, this is a level comparable to what his work had achieved in the 1990s.
“Because Tesla is considered the best car in the world, if the opportunity arises, I would like to compare our technology to theirs.”
He dreams of seeing the two models ride on the Bugak Skyway, a narrow, winding road that passes over a mountain in north Seoul.
“Of course, Tesla has invested heavily in testing, so it could be a lot more sophisticated,” he believes.
“But there shouldn’t be a lot of difference in basic functionality.”
However, for him, technology has its limits: true autonomy in terms of driving is out of reach because vehicles cannot adapt as well as humans to an unforeseen situation.
In his view, autonomous vehicles will therefore be widely used for transporting goods rather than for transporting people.