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Been there, done that

Nov 05,2019
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Former Korea University Prof. Han Min-hong developed Korea’s first self-driving vehicle in 1993 and tested it on city roads, a world’s first. [HAN MIN-HONG]
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Kwon Hyuk-joo
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The small office stuffed with several computer monitors and an array of equipment, including a soldering iron, looked more like a repair shop than a lab of a respected engineering professor. Han Min-hong, 77, a former engineering professor at Korea University, has been working on his own in a research space in Yongin, Gyeonggi, after retirement.

He was a pioneer in Korea’s self-driving technology. I thought of him as I read a recent newspaper headline, which said that Korea would allow autonomous vehicles on the Gyeongbu expressway connecting Seoul and southern regions eight years from now under the government’s vision on future mobility. I had met the veteran engineering professor twice — last year and in 1995.

He had developed the country’s first self-driving vehicle in 1993 and tested it on the roads in Seoul. In 1995, he appeared on KBS news for his demonstration on a driverless car speeding up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour. The camera showed the car running on one lane on the Gyeongbu expressway. Prof. Han had his hands and feet to himself and laid back in the driver’s seat. The reporter on the passenger seat said that the day would soon arrive when the driver could safely doze while driving.

The “near future” did not arrive as soon as expected. As a professor at Texas State University, Han had worked on an unmanned submarine project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. After he returned home in the late 1980s, he focused his research on self-driving motor vehicles.

In 1993, his vehicle tested on Seoul roads. It ran above the now-defunct Cheonggye overpass, crossed the Hanam Bridge over the Han River to reach the 63 Building in Yeouido, western Seoul, for a total distance of 17 kilometers. It also drove on the Gyeongbu expressway. The achievement was published in international papers. He was visited by officials from German makers Benz and Volkswagen.

But his research and development has stopped there. He could not get government sponsorship. He still does not know why his project was rejected. He devoted his own money and spare time on self-driving research while doing other projects that made money. His work lost impetus. Korea’s self-driving technology also has lost 20 years.

Domestic research on self-driving technology only picked up in the mid-2010s after Google unveiled its self-driving vehicle. Korea has been trying to keep up since then. No Korean names were on the top 10 list in a global survey this year. Hyundai Motor was 15th after it joined an alliance with foreign autonomous vehicle leaders Aptiv and Velodyne.

Han remains devoted to the research even after retiring 10 years ago. He has upgraded the software and control systems for autonomous vehicles and tested them. He also developed eyeglasses that can prevent dozing off while driving. The eyewear makes buzzing sounds upon sensing the lids are shut for a longer than necessary period of time or if the driver’s head falls. He does not stop experimenting although nearing the age of 80.

What if Han had received enough funding for his research 20 years ago? Shuji Nakamura, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing blue light-emitting diodes (LED), had worked in a small chemical company.

He was able to continue his research on the new lighting with the support of his boss in the early 1990s. Japan was able to gain proprietary LED technology through corporate funding. Korea lost its chance to make headway in autonomous vehicle due to government ignorance and neglect.

The Moon Jae-in administration has vowed to spend 2.2 trillion won ($1.9 billion) to build a value chain for future mobility. There are, however, some concerns about the government’s belated eagerness.

The government missed the chance of breeding autonomous vehicle technology two decades ago due to its blindness. It must not let tax funds go to waste this time by blind spending.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 4, Page 28