Many years earlier than the race to construct a self-driving automobile grew to become a multi-billion-dollar contest between tech giants corresponding to Tesla and Google, a South Korean professor constructed an autonomous car and test-drove it throughout the nation — just for his analysis to be consigned to the scrapheap. Han Min-hong, now 79, efficiently examined his self-driving automobile on the roads of Seoul in 1993 — a decade earlier than Elon Musk even based Tesla. Two years later, it drove 300 kilometres (185 miles) from the capital to the southern port of Busan, on probably the most heavily-travelled expressway in South Korea.

Footage from the interval exhibits the automobile barrelling down a freeway, with nobody behind the wheel. A 386-chip-powered desktop pc, full with monitor and keyboard, is positioned on the passenger seat. Han is sitting within the again, waving on the digital camera.

“It felt extraordinary,” stated the affable inventor.

“The workload was very heavy,” however he and his group “had an unlimited ardour because it was one thing others hadn’t performed but, one thing that hadn’t come out on the planet but”.

On the time, South Korea was extra targeted on heavy business, corresponding to metal and shipbuilding, with the typical Korean not but acquainted with cellphones.

The nation was but to change into the tech powerhouse it’s right now, and was nonetheless pursuing imitation reasonably than innovation. On one event, Han was informed: “Why develop a brand new know-how when you possibly can at all times pay for it?”

Han’s tasks have been seen as harmful. He was as soon as requested how a lot he was paying for his life insurance coverage, he stated, and whether or not his spouse was conscious of “these loopy actions of yours?”

However Han was so satisfied of his automobiles’ security that he hardly ever wore a seat belt — and has by no means had life insurance coverage.

Even so, unable to see a lot funding potential, the federal government finally lower funding to his analysis at Korea College.

Now, Musk’s electrical automobile agency is a $600-billion behemoth, whereas Han’s Chumdancha is a small firm in Yongin, south of Seoul, the place he and one different worker nonetheless develop specialist warning programs for autonomous autos.

Musk is a “great and excellent” individual, Han stated. “He got here up along with his personal, agency imaginative and prescient based mostly on what others have been doing, and that’s actually unimaginable.”

However Han’s invention might have paved the way in which for South Korea to dominate the business, he added regretfully.

Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon College’s Robotics Institute, who reviewed the Nineties footage for AFP, stated it “seems to be on par with a few of the finest work on autonomous autos throughout that interval”.

“The professor and a colleague will not be even within the driver’s seat — very daring, assured however very dangerous factor to do,” he added.

“It’s unlucky that funding for that undertaking was lower. In hindsight, that was definitely not a clever resolution.”

Korea College describes Han as “a pioneer and hero within the international subject of synthetic intelligence”, who is thought for creating the South’s first automotive navigation system and a mini-helicopter seen as a precursor to modern-day drones, in addition to his autonomous car work.

He’s seen within the South as a genius forward of his time — the Nineties footage has been considered greater than 1.5 million instances because it was posted to YouTube in February.

Self-driving autos are a significant technological battleground for right now’s automakers, with know-how giants like Google mum or dad Alphabet spending billions of {dollars} in a market that’s imagined to gasoline car gross sales.

Tesla stated final 12 months it was “very shut” to attaining Stage 5 autonomous driving know-how — which signifies basically complete autonomy.

However Han insists the American agency’s present choices are successfully similar to his Nineties work.

“As Tesla is thought to be one of the best automobile on the planet, if there’s a probability, I wish to evaluate our know-how to theirs.”

He advised a problem on the Bugak Skyway, a twisting, slender street that runs over a mountain in northern Seoul.

“In fact Tesla’s invested some huge cash in testing, so it could be significantly better relating to sophistication,” he informed AFP. “However there shouldn’t be a lot distinction when it comes all the way down to primary performance.”

Even so, Han believes there are limits to what self-driving know-how can obtain, and that true autonomy is past attain.

Neural networks wouldn’t have the flexibleness of people when confronted with a novel state of affairs that’s not of their programming, he stated, predicting that self-driving autos will largely be used to move items reasonably than folks.

“Computer systems and people will not be the identical,” he added.