A South Korean professor who pioneered self-driving cars


Decades before giants Tesla and Google embarked on the race for autonomous vehicles, a South Korean professor had developed a driverless car, which he tested across the country before having to give up his research.

Han Min-hong, 79, saw the light of day 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 “new 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 remembers 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 knew about 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 “wonderful 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 “seem to be among the best work done in terms of autonomous vehicles at that time.”

“The professor and his colleague are not even sitting in the driver’s seat”, it was “very daring and risky”, according to him.

It is regrettable in his eyes that funding for the project has ceased and “in hindsight, it was certainly not a wise decision”.

Korea University calls Han a “pioneer and hero in the international arena of artificial intelligence.”

The professor also designed South Korea’s first car navigation system and a mini-helicopter that prefigured drones.

– A genius –

He is considered a genius in his country 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” to 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 said.

“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 the transport of goods rather than for the transport of people.

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