The road not taken: South Korean self-driving professor

Han Min-hoon successfully tested his self-driving car in 1993-a decade before Elon Musk founded Tesla

Decades before the race to build a self-driving car became a multibillion-dollar competition between tech giants such as Tesla and Google, a South Korean professor built an autonomous car and test-drove it across the country, only for his research to be sent to the landfill.

Han Min-hoon, now 79, successfully tested his self-driving car on the roads of Seoul in 1993-a a decade before Tesla was founded.

Two years later, he drove 300 kilometers (185 miles) from the capital to the southern port of Busan, on the most heavily traveled expressway in Korea.

In the footage taken during this period, you can see how the car went down the highway, no one at the wheel. The passenger seat is equipped with a 386-chip desktop computer with a monitor and keyboard. Han sits in the back and waves at the camera.

"It was extraordinary," said the affable inventor.

"The workload was very heavy", but he and his team "had a huge passion, as it was something that others had not yet done, something that had not yet come out in the world".

At the time, South Korea was more focused on heavy industries such as steel and shipbuilding, with the average Korean not yet familiar with mobile phones.

The country has not yet become the technological power it is today and is still engaged in imitation, not innovation. One day Khan was told: "Why to develop a new technology when you can always pay for it?»

By the mid-1990s, an autonomous car built by South Korean Han Min Hong could travel 300 kilometers (185 miles) from Seoul to Busan

Khan's projects were seen as dangerous. He was once asked how much he paid for life insurance, he said, and whether his wife was aware of "your crazy activities?»

But Khan was so convinced of the safety of his cars that he rarely wore a seat belt and never had life insurance.

Despite this, unable to see much investment potential, the government eventually cut funding for his research at the University of Korea.

Now, Elon Musk's electric car firm Tesla is a $ 600-billion behemoth, while Han's Chumdancha is a small company in Yongin, south of Seoul, where he and another employee are still developing specialized warning systems for autonomous vehicles.

Musk is a "huge and outstanding" person, Khan said. "He came up with his own, solid vision based on what others were doing, and it's really incredible."

But Han's invention could sell the way for South Korea to dominate the industry, he added ruefully.

The government of the Republic of Korea did not see the investment potential in Han Min Hoon's autonomous driving car and cut funding for his research

Raj Rajkumar, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute who reviewed the 1990s footage for AFP, said that "it seems to be on par with some of the best work on autonomous vehicles during this period."

"A professor and a colleague are not even in the driver's seat – a very brave, confident, but very risky activity," he added.

"It is a pity that the funding for this project has been reduced. In retrospect, it certainly wasn't a wise decision."

Calling the Mask

The Korean University describes Han as a "pioneer and hero in the global field of artificial intelligence", who is known for developing the first automotive navigation system and a mini-helicopter, which is seen as a precursor to modern unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as its autonomous operation with vehicles.

He is regarded in the south as a genius ahead of his time-the 1990s footage has been viewed more than 1.5 million times since it was posted on YouTube in February.

Elon Musk's Tesla electric car is worth $600 billion

Self-driving vehicles are a major technology battleground for today's automakers, with tech giants like Google and Alphabet spending billions of dollars in a market that should fuel vehicle sales.

Tesla said last year it was "very close" to achieving Level 5 autonomous driving technology, which indicates substantially full autonomy.

But Khan insists that the US firm's current offerings are actually comparable to his work from the 1990s.

"Since Tesla is considered the best car in the world, if there is a chance, I would like to compare our technology with theirs."

He offered a challenge on the Bugak Skyway, a winding, narrow road that runs over a mountain in northern Seoul.

"Of course, Tesla has invested a lot of money in testing, so it can be much better when it comes to complexity," he told AFP. "But there shouldn't be much different when it comes to basic functionality."

Han Min-hoon insists that Tesla's current offerings in automated cars are actually comparable to its work from the 1990s

Despite this, Khan believes that there are limits to what self-driving technologies can achieve, and that true autonomy is out of reach.

Neural networks don't have the flexibility of people when faced with a new situation that's not in their programming, he said, predicting that self-driving vehicles will largely be used to transport goods rather than people.

"Computers and people are not the same things," he added.

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