Decades before the race to build a self-driving car became a multi-billion-dollar contest between tech giants such as Tesla and Google, a South Korean professor built an autonomous vehicle and test-drove it across the country.
Han Min-Hong, now 79, successfully tested his self-driving car on the roads of Seoul in 1993, a decade before Tesla was founded. Soon after that, it drove 300 kilometres (185 miles) on the most heavily-travelled expressway in South Korea.
Footage from the period shows the car barreling down a highway, with no one behind the wheel. A 386-chip-powered desktop computer, complete with a monitor and keyboard, is placed on the passenger seat. Han is sitting in the back, waving at the camera. He said:
“It felt extraordinary. The workload was very heavy, but me and my team had an enormous passion as it was something others hadn’t done yet, something that hadn’t come out in the world yet”.
The country was yet to become the tech powerhouse it is today and was still pursuing imitation rather than innovation.
However, Han’s projects were seen as dangerous. He was once asked how much he was paying for his life insurance. But Han was so convinced of his cars’ safety that he rarely wore a seat belt—and has never had life insurance. Even so, Han was unable to see much investment potential, the government eventually cut funding to his research.
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 one other employee still develop specialist warning systems for autonomous vehicles.
Musk is a “tremendous and outstanding” person. He came up with his own, firm vision based on what others were doing, and that is really incredible.” But Han’s invention could have paved the way for South Korea to dominate the industry, he added regretfully.
Korea University describes Han as “a pioneer and hero in the global field of artificial intelligence“, who is known for developing the South’s first automotive navigation system and a mini-helicopter seen as a precursor to modern-day drones, as well as his autonomous vehicle work. He is seen in the South as a genius ahead of his time.
Self-driving vehicles are a major technological battleground for today’s automakers, with technology giants like Google parent Alphabet spending billions of dollars in a market that is supposed to fuel vehicle sales. But Han insists the American firm’s current offerings are effectively comparable to his 1990s work.
“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. Of course, Tesla’s invested a lot of money in testing, so it might be much better when it comes to sophistication. But there shouldn’t be much different when it comes down to basic functionality.”
Han believes there are limits to what self-driving technology can achieve, and that true autonomy is beyond reach.