The Avant-garde professor from South Korea who built an autonomous vehicle decades before Tesla existed


Yongin, South Korea, April 2 2021: When self-driving cars were as common as unicorns are in real life, Professor Han Min-hong’s pet project was scrapped for being decades ahead of his time. He now reminisces about the difficult journey that led to the culmination of his dream.

The South Korean professor who is now 79, built an autonomous vehicle and drove it across the country in 1993, decades before the race to build a self-driving car became a multi-billion-dollar contest between tech giants.

Video from the period shows the car barrelling down a highway, with no one behind the wheel, just a desktop computer, complete with monitor and keyboard, placed on the passenger seat, Han is sitting in the back, waving at the camera now has 1.5million views since February.

He remembers feeling extraordinary. There was a lot of work but his team and himself were passionate about becoming trail-blazers in the industry. Like most industrial economies, South Korea was more focused on heavy industry, such as steel and shipbuilding.They were still imitating rather than innovating and Han was often questioned about the safety of his project and the rationale behind it. Despite the skepticism, he battled on and succeeded. Eventually though, unable to see much investment potential, the government cut funding to his research at Korea University.

To put this in perspective, Tesla is now a $600-billion behemoth, while Han’s Chumdancha is a small company in Yongin, south of Seoul, where he and one other employee still develop specialist warning systems for autonomous vehicles.

He praises Elon Musk’s ability to build so much out of nothing but he regrets the government’s decision to pull the plug on his research, and how South Korea could be the leader in the industry if that hadn’t happened.

Han is a pioneer and hero in the global field of artificial intelligence, and is known for developing the South’s first automotive navigation system and a mini-helicopter, a precursor to the drone and last but not the least, his work on autonomous vehicles.

Tesla said last year it was “very close” to achieving Level 5 autonomous driving technology — which indicates essentially total autonomy.

Han has proposed a challenge on the Bugak Skyway saying, “As Tesla is regarded as the best car in the world, if there is a chance, I would like to compare our technology to theirs.”

In spite of all this, Han believes there are limits to what self-driving technology can achieve, and that true autonomy is beyond reach. AI does not have the flexibility of humans when faced with a novel situation that is not in the programming, he said, predicting that self-driving vehicles will largely be used to transport goods rather than people.

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