Professor Seung-Woo Seo, why the autonomous vehicle expert left Korea (CHOSUN NEWS, 20181204)

2018-12-14l Hit 256

SNU professor Seung-Woo Seo and his students

Operated a self-driving car for 60,000Km on actual roads in the city without a single accident but couldn’t receive any funding in Korea due to excessive regulations

Made in Korea autonomous vehicle ‘SnuVER’ started delivering packages in the center of Silicon Valley, the land of innovation. With Ace Hardware, a large retail chaining company with 5000 stores, a pilot delivery service project with autonomous vehicles was launched at the start of this month.

Seung-Woo Seo, SNU professor and founder of self-driving car start-up ThorDrive (right), and his student, CEO Dong-Kyoung Kye(left)

Behind them, there is the autonomous delivery car that drives around the city of Palo Alto in California, United States.

SNUVer was created by ThorDrive, which is a start-up company founded in 2015 by SNU professor Seung-Woo Seo, a top authority in the field of autonomous vehicles, and his students including Dong-Kyoung Kye, who is pursuing a doctorate degree.

Around 20 people out of 35 workers are students of professor Seo. The initial goal of ThorDrive was to develop an autonomous vehicle optimized for road conditions in Korea. Professor Seo and his students wanted to go beyond the laboratory and develop self-driving cars that normal people can actually ride and be carried in. SNUVer proved its technical capability by driving through the complicated city center of Seoul such as Yeoido district without any accidents for more than 60,000Km in three years.

However, the plan for commercialization in Korea had to be pushed back due to the high regulatory barriers. Professor Seo said, “Overseas investors were reluctant to invest in us after seeing how new services like carpooling and Uber were discouraged by regulations and vested interests.” ThorDrive finally paved its way for investments and commercialization after moving its headquarters to the United States last year. ThorDrive is planning to also launch a driver-less delivery service in Korea next year June with large retail companies. However, professor Seo said, “Even though there are positive discussions on the matter now, the permission for autonomous driving services in commercial use is still not guaranteed due to so many restrictions yet to be solved.”
On the 29th of November (local time), at the Ace Hardware Store in Palo Alto, California, U.S.

In the middle of heavy rain, a Ford van modified into an autonomous vehicle by ThorDrive, a start-up company, drove its way out of the parking lot. While the car drove itself on pre-mapped routes around downtown and the residential area for around 20 minutes, the worker sitting at the driver’s seat did not need to have his hands on the driving wheel and just looked around to check if the car was moving correctly. The screen mounted on the dashboard in front of the passenger’s seat showed the movements of objects, people and other cars around the road in real time.

Inside the vehicle of ThorDrive’s autonomous delivery car

The driver has his eyes on the road in case of an emergency, but his hands are not on the driving wheel.
Two delivery car of ThorDrive is parked in front of the Ace Hardware store in Palo Alto, California, U.S.
The car makes its own decisions based on the perceived movements within a hundred-meter range using four LiDARs (object recognition sensor) and 10 cameras. During the drive, it faced various situations including sudden appearances of cars or people and unprotected left turns, but it managed to handle them adequately as a human would do. It was a complicated scenario with cars parked along both sides of most roads, but it smoothly got itself into the flow of other cars meeting the speed limit of 25 miles (approximately 40 Km/h).

A ThorDrive official said, “It is prepared for almost every practical scenario that can happen in the city such as unexpected construction sites or a case where a delivery man leaves the car empty in the middle of the road.”

◇A Korean autonomous vehicle finds its way in the United States

The pilot delivery service with self-driving cars which was launched this day by ThorDrive is for the customers of Ace Hardware. Clients that order a mass volume of products in the city of Palo Alto, such as the fire department and kindergartens, will firstly receive the service. When a client orders through the phone or the internet, stores will send the products with the autonomous vehicles. Then the products will be received by the clients in front of their house.

Currently, a person sits on the driver’s seat just in case of an emergency during the drive, but the future goal is to operate it as a fully unmanned service.

Founder Seungwoo Seo, professor of SNU department of electrical and computer engineering, and his student Dongkyung Kye, CEO of ThorDrive, said, “We are planning on implementing an ordering system as a smartphone application and an authentication system, which allows only the authorized person to retrieve the products from the car. With these services, an instant delivery system from a 24 hours operating store can be possible completely changing the concept of product distribution.” Manager of Ace Hardware Eric Hassett said, “Many companies were considered as prospected partners, but regarding safety issues and abilities of the developers, we decided on ThorDrive.”

At the kick-off event held on this day, many regional officials also attended. Palo Alto Vice Mayor Eric Filseth said, “Clearly, autonomous vehicles are going to be a revolution on transportation and distribution. We will proactively provide city-scale support to ThorDrive’s self-driving delivery cars,” The workers of ThorDrive were also inspired by the environment of Silicon Valley which was completely different from Korea.

CEO Kye said, “American investors tend to make investment decisions on outstanding technologies solely depending on the potentials. Also, the government and city councils put a lot of effort in resolving regulations with the changing pace of cutting-edge technology.” He also said that he could understand why companies from all around the world came to California to compete for autonomous vehicle commercialization. What California could provide was the reason for ThorDrive as well to move from Korea to the United States when it was initially founded for the development of Korea-specialized autonomous vehicles.

◇Groundbreaking change in regulations needed for competitiveness

Autonomous driving is attracting attention to lead the paradigm shift in the future vehicle market. Boston Consulting Group predicted that the market size of autonomous vehicles would be up to 420 billion dollars by 2025 and autonomous vehicles will make up 25 percent of global vehicle sales by 2035. Currently, more than 60 companies around the world including Google, Apple, GM, Ford, Baidu, only from California, are competing for commercialization to take a dominant position in the market.

Professor Seung-Woo Seo said, “Google’s autonomous vehicle that drove for over millions of miles is leading the development, but there still remain areas where Korea can gain a competitive edge. The fact that global companies do not possess substantial data from the cities of Asia like Korea’s Seoul is a positive aspect.” He implied that Korean companies have enough potentials to win the market in Asia where the driving culture is completely different.

Experts advised that for Korea to gain its strength, the regulations should be revolutionized first. Du-won Char, a research committee member of Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning, said, “If Korea cannot provide the chance for companies to research willingly by mitigating the regulations, promising start-ups inevitably will turn their attention to opportunities overseas.”

Translated by Kyungjin Lee, English Editor of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering,