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Robo Gangnam Style: Self-driving Taxis Arrive in South Korea

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Last year Hyundai introduced a level 4 version of the Ioniq 5. Now they have launched a robotaxi service in Seoul’s iconic Gangnam district.

Hyundai is calling the service a RoboRide. The ability to hail a RoboRide will be first made available to company employees, though Seoul’s mayor took the inaugural ride when the service launched on June the 8th. Much like the Cruise and Waymo services these rides are booked through a bespoke app called i.M.

Though the service is based on a level 4 system the company maintains a safety driver in each RoboRide, meaning that the vehicle can take a total of three people in the back seat each time. Currently there is no mention of when the safety driver might be removed, or when other things like the steering wheel and so on might follow. Presently the RoboRide is a retrofitted Ioniq 5, though presumably the capabilities, if proven, can be implemented in a dedicated vehicle. This is hinted at in a statement by Woongjun Jang, the Senior Vice President and Head of the Autonomous Driving Center at Hyundai, who said: “We expect this RoboRide pilot service will be an important inflection point that will enable us to internalize autonomous driving technology.”

The overall aim of the project, Hyundai says, is to gain valuable data and experience with these systems that can later find application in their production vehicles. Essential to the functioning of the pilot is the ability of the vehicles to communicate with infrastructure, in particular, traffic lights. This is the main reason that the pilot has launched in Gangnam, as the district authorities have collaborated with Hyundai to install the needed tech in the traffic lights to allow communication with the RoboRide vehicles.

Personal Comment:

Hyundai’s robotaxi is similar in many ways to competitors. That the vehicles have a safety driver is not too surprising, and it is unclear if this is Hyundai’s decision or a regulatory one. South Korea is a major automobile producing country, almost all of which is within the Hyundai Motor Group, which produced 3.89 million units in 2021.  Globally this puts Hyundai in 4th place in terms of units produced, behind Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Volkswagen Group, and Toyota Group. Hyundai is a major player and has significant potential reach if it can harness self-driving features from this pilot for its production vehicles.

Because this is a pilot, it is still not clear what sort of business model Hyundai has in mind to go along with the service. Are they aiming to run a robotaxi service along with a dedicated app in the future? Do they see this as a way of primarily gaining data for improving features in their regular production vehicles? Or do they have a partner that might use their vehicles in its own robotaxi service, such as Uber?

One interesting thing to note about the RoboRide is that it is clearly marked as an autonomous vehicle to other road users, which relates to our previous article on this issue. Any way you slice it, it seems clear that the robotaxis are coming. How quickly, in what form, and under what regulation remains to be seen.

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems