An event showcasing autonomous vehicles and related technologies based on 5G mobile communication services was held at the Sangam Cultural Square in Sangam-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul on June 22. The event offered a preview of the future traffic environment which will be realized before long. At the same time, it laid bare the poor state of the autonomous car ecosystems in Korea. The self-driving bus used for demonstration was imported from China as Korean automakers still do not produce autonomous buses.
This event proved that artificial intelligence (AI) will be commercialized soon to make autonomous vehicles drive in downtown areas in Korea. While an 11-seat self-driving bus provided by SK Telecom slowly ran for one kilometer on World Cup North Road in front of the festival venue, AI was precisely monitoring the situations of the road and surrounding areas in real time. The bus was equipped with a lidar system which detects the position of the vehicle using a laser. The lidar system continuously checked situations 100 to 150 meters ahead. In addition, when the camera shoots the things around the vehicle in real time, AI identifies whether objects in the photos were people, obstacles, vehicles, or signs. As a mannequin suddenly appeared on the road while the bus rolled, AI immediately recognized the mannequin, put the brake on the bus, and ran and made turns following traffic signals. Traffic information detected by a car ahead was sent to the bus through telecommunications and AI comprehensively judged traffic situations by analyzing the traffic information.
The bus ran at speed of 10 km per hour. "At present, the bus is allowed to run up to 30 km per hour in downtown areas according to related laws and regulations,” an SK Telecom official said. “We have secured technology at that level and will complete a demonstration at the level within this year,"
The bus has a level 3 self-drive capability, which means that it can run on its own on pre-defined areas and routes. No driver is required but the bus has a driver's seat. This is because one assistant human driver must be on board to prepare for unexpected situations. The human driver quickly intervenes in situations where the autonomous bus cannot properly respond to accidents, thus preventing them. On the test day, an assistant driver was in the bus but the bus faced no situation where the assistant driver had to operate the bus.
The bus was not domestically made. "I understand that the bus was imported from China as no Korean company manufactures such autonomous buses yet,” one official said. Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors produce commercial vehicles such as buses, but they have not produced autonomous buses due to a lack of demand for them. Car industry watchers say that large Korean companies will enter the autonomous bus market when they judge that they can sell at least tens of thousands of autonomous buses a year.
If foreign companies dominate autonomous bus platforms in Korea, Korean parts and software development companies will be subordinated to them. "Most of autonomous car-related parts, in particular, sensors, are imported to Korea and Korean companies are only putting them together," an industry official said. “Korea significantly lags behind the United States in semiconductors for powering AI of autonomous cars. Industry watchers say that Korea will be able to keep its sovereign rights in the transportation industry when autonomous bus operation schedules are matched with the Korean industry’s self-drive car development plans.