South Korea took a leap for mankind on Thursday as a self-driving car called SNUver made its debut on the city road. Having been fostered by a research team at Seoul National University for two years, the official kickoff jump-starts newly opened local industry.
SNUver -- SNU’s “people mover” -- has gone from transporting kids across a quiet campus late at night to safely maneuvering through midday traffic in front of Korea’s National Assembly building. It was in that building, in Seoul’s Yeouido district, where deregulations finally passed last year to allow autonomous drive testing on urban roads. Researchers obtained their license this April and have since been in stealth mode to gather road data in the area before launch.
When I first took the SNUver for a spin -- rather, when it took me for a spin -- this winter on SNU’s quiet, winding roads, I felt safe and unconcerned. The car identified threats in the road early on and practically stopped to ensure the utmost safety for passengers.
It was a little too safe, I thought, for the brash, aggressive driving style of downtown Seoul. In Korea, right of way is practiced as the most expensive car going first. Taxis pop in and out of traffic on a whim, and buses swing across multiple lanes regardless of traffic. With an automated car that took such precautions, its safety features would surely invite a fender-bender.
Since then, the team has upgraded SNUver from “grandma” style to “mom,” as described by systems engineer Kye Dong-kyoung, who sits behind the wheel. Indeed, the pace was a little less gradual, a little more in tune with Seoul’s stop-go traffic while ensuring everyone’s safety. Still, the system sometimes seemed overly sensitive, slowing abruptly when a pedestrian walked near a parking space on the street or at the sign of a yellow light.
The car, aimed for Level 4 autonomy, is equipped with four Velodyne Lidar sensors, seven cameras -- five on top and two on the sides -- and a Linux-based system. It has a way to go for full autonomy. One engineer must sit in the driver’s seat for emergencies, as well as to park and pull out into traffic -- a technique that still has to be perfected in the SNUver. While it has been tested in snow and rain, it has not yet seen extreme conditions such as heavy snowfall or thick fog, which are not too common in the Korean winter.
For the rest of the year, the team plans to explore Yeouido and other parts of Seoul to build out their map, a key component for the technology.
It’s been a long, sometimes lonely road for Seo Seung-woo, the lead professor: “When I started my study on autonomous driving 10 years ago, nobody was interested at that time,” he said at the site. While self-driving cars were becoming a buzzword in the U.S., Koreans still saw it as a joke or fantasy, leaving him to build maps, sensors and software stacks on his own. Since then, his team has grown to two dozen, and interest in the country has ballooned. Korea’s related technologies have also improved, especially in mapping, giving a greater chance for faster development through collaboration.
SNU’s automated drive testing license is one of just a handful in South Korea, also issued to internet giant Naver, automaker Hyundai Motor and government agencies.
Hyundai showcased its highly autonomous Ioniq to press late last year in Los Angeles, and delivered a VR experience of it at the Seoul Motor Show in March. The Korean government aims to debut self-driving technology at its Olympic Games in Pyeongchang next year, with a pilot version by year-end. Seo encourages the competition and hopes more tech and OEM companies bring momentum to the industry
SNUver already has an upgrade in the works. The next-generation SNUvi is equipped with four sensors and five cameras on the roof, along with more discreet cameras under the side view mirrors to better monitor closer objects.
“I wanted to demonstrate that our software is universal and can be applied to other different kinds of platforms,” Seo explains. “For mass transportation, we have to get different types of cars for that applications. But in that case, we still be able to apply our software technology to different kinds of vehicle types.” SNUvi will be ready by August and on the road in September.
Compared to the U.S. where the tech was taken seriously early on, Korea has a lot of catching up to do. Seo predicts the technology will be ready for market in five or six years, but it’ll take until 2030 to be marketable in Korea, on both Seo and Hyundai’s estimates. While there are not many regulations left that hinder driverless car testing, there are other infrastructure factors like laws, insurance, and convincing the public of the tech’s safety. “Nobody has got the solution yet, but we need to sit together and start discussion. I hope this event today will trigger this kind of nationalized discussion among people,” he says.
SNUver is just the beginning for Seo, who has big dreams for applying the core technology to the big picture of mass transit, such as Seoul’s sprawling bus system, or even on-demand delivery solutions for private companies. He even plans to enter politics down the road to fulfill his vision.
“I want everyone to move safely and comfortably,” he says. “Autonomous driving technology, I believe, will be a very important tool to realize those goals.”