Professor Seung-woo Seo, Developer of the first urban autonomous vehicle ‘SNUver’ in Korea

2018-06-12l Hit 551

Starting from ‘SNUver’ in 2015, revealing ‘SNUvi’ this fall…Planning to offer public trials
Evolution pace of domestic automotive manufacturers too slow… Still at initial stage of autonomous driving compared to developed countries

Professor Seung-woo Seo, head of SNU Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center, in an interview with NewSys in the afternoon of the 4th

On 2015, an autonomous vehicle drove through actual roads for the first time in Korea. This was ‘SNUver,’ which was produced by the SNU Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center team. SNUver has been roaming around the complicated Yeoido district, logging driving miles for over 2 years. Now the upgrade version ‘SNUver2’ and SNUver’s counterpart ‘SNUvi’ are driving through the city.

On the 4th, we met the ‘father of SNUver’ Professor Seung-woo Seo, head of SNU Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center (Professor of electrical and computer engineering, college of Engineering), at a SNU research laboratory in Gwanak-gu, Seoul.

He has been involved in research related to automobiles for over 10 years, but mechanical engineering is not actually his major. After graduating Seoul National University with a degree in electrical engineering, he also received a master’s degree in the same department. Afterwards, he went to Pennsylvania State University to receive his doctoral degree, also in electrical engineering. As an electrical engineer, having interest in cars was an act of deviance and infidelity.

“In the states, I specialized in high performance network, which is the concept of connecting CPUs. When I came back to Korea, there was no adequate area to apply network technology. I tried to find where I could apply this technology.”

After coming back from the United States in 1996 and becoming a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering of SNU, he began to pay full attention to automobiles starting from the early 2000s. This was when the ‘smart car’ boom was about to start.

“A large number of CPUs are needed in a smart car. These CPUs with various functions are connected to each other with the technology called network. Through this, they can be managed efficiently allowing higher performance and lower cost. It was around year 2000 that the possibility of applying network technology on cars was discovered. “

Starting from the curiosity in ‘how can we apply network technology’, he completely shifted over to having interest in cars. Going beyond the research of car components, he wanted to make the car itself.

“I thought that I would not be able to do all the research I wanted by only working on the individual components of a car. Research that has the characteristic of a playground was needed. I came to a conclusion that it would be nice if I could operate a car myself rather than use the ones made by others.”

Around then, the field of autonomous driving, other than the smart car concept, was completely new. Naturally, there could be no one that made cars with autonomous driving. However, from the early 2000s, Professor Seo started to make the frame structure of a car where autonomous driving technology could be implemented.

With some progress, he became more enthusiastic about the topic and from 2007 he fully focused his research on autonomous vehicles. Since 2009, he also held the position as head of Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center, which was founded in SNU.

There were many interesting attempts related to autonomous driving. On October of 2012, he hosted the unmanned solar vehicle competition and also participated with his own creation. He started with the aspiration to host it every year which unfortunately could not be realized. In 2013, he participated in Korea’s first autonomous vehicle competition hosted by the Ministry of Knowledge Economy. Professor Seo won the Grand Prize for achieving the shortest time in the finals by implementing autonomous driving technology in the modified version of Hyundai Motor’s Tucson.

Afternoon of the 22nd on a road in Yeouido, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, Researchers of SNU Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center are riding the self-driving autonomous vehicle SNUver

With consecutive achievements, he grew confidence. Research on autonomous vehicle SNUver also began in earnest. After about 2 years of concentrated research, SNUver was first revealed in November, 2015. SNUver, having accumulated over 20,000km of distance record driving through SNU campus, made it to different parts of Yeouido roads last June. SNUver is the first autonomous car in Korea to drive on an actual road.

Going outside limited areas and on to the actual roads, such as wide roads between high-rise buildings, narrow roads, tunnels, and construction areas, helps the autonomous vehicle improve its ability. The key to autonomous driving technology is in the data accumulated through test drives. Learning based on this data is what makes progress in the technology.

SNUver is continuously evolving. SNUver2, the upgrade version of SNUver, was showcased in November, 2016. SNUver uses a single expensive sensor whereas SNUver 2 uses multiple low-cost sensors. Another model ‘SNUvi’ is also added to the lineup.

“SNUver and SNUvi have different roles and features. SNUver is a model that is better at driving on roads with traffic lights and wide streets, while SNUvi is better at going through back roads and alleys. Street light and vehicle detection features are more important for SNUver, but for SNUvi, being able to find its way through narrow alleys or squeezing in between other cars is more important.

You can easily spot SNUver2 and SNUvi on roads around the Yeouido district. It is running in the speed of 50Km per hour for 4~5 hours a day to rack up its test miles.

However, it is not easy to recognize SNUver and SNUvi on the road as autonomous vehicles, since they hardly have any difference compared to normal cars. They easily cut into other lines and handle sudden and unexpected situations skillfully. Professor Seo believes that the self-driving ability of SNUver and SNUvi is on level 4 based on the American Society of Automotive Engineers(SAE) standards. It is on the level of being able to drive alone without human intervention other than in exceptional situations. SNUvi is going to open a public event as early as this fall, and allow driving trials for the public.

Research of Professor Seo’s team progressed a lot but the domestic autonomous driving technology is still in its initial stage. Professor Seo thinks that while we did not pay attention to this area, America’s IT companies like Google and Apple have already invested in autonomous vehicle research for many years, driving through real roads and accumulating technologies.

“I think there was something missing in our government policy or they lacked innovation. There was active research on future vehicles starting from 2007 but only in the car components developing industries, mainly based on hardware.”

Focusing on physical parts and hardware did not allow sufficient investment in software. Autonomous driving technology needs to be backed up with technologies such as AI and Big Data, not only with hardware components such as sensors, radars, and lidars. Our government did not invest at all in software back then.

 “After about 10 years from then, In Korea, SNUver was the first to do trials on actual roads in 2015, whereas the United States already started testing on normal roads back in 2009. In the meantime, software technology significantly improved.”

While autonomous vehicles of Google and Apple did a few laps around the earth, we have been doing repetitive work like a squirrel on a treadmill. Although domestic automotive manufacturers and even Samsung and LG are interested in autonomous driving and electronization, Professor Seo thinks that our government policy is still focused on hardware. 

 “The gap between Google and Apple’s autonomous car and our technology is huge. The amount of test miles their autonomous cars have on actual roads, is how behind we are.”

Professor Seo thinks that autonomous cars will be commercialized as early as 2030. The technology is advancing rapidly, but specific guidelines on autonomous driving, such as legal and institutional issues or insurance are still lacking.

The concern on the safety of autonomous car is also something to be resolved. Especially, From Uber’s recent fatal self-driving crash, safety issues of autonomous vehicles emerged. Professor Seo said that the answer to these safety issues is ‘driving miles.’

 “In the case of Uber, they have a higher risk of accidents since they have many running self-driving cars. We may need to think of these accidents as part of the developing process of autonomous vehicles. When problems occur, they need to be improved one by one and that is why having more driving trial miles is important. The more you drive, the lower the risk.”

Professor Seung-woo Seo, who has been focusing only on autonomous driving research which seems to be not related to electrical engineering. He seemed to have an exceptional 10 years of opinion on the domestic automotive industry in an objective perspective. We asked for what he wanted say to the car manufacturers in Korea.