Hyundai speeds development of robot taxis to catch Google, GM

Visitors looking at Hyundai Motor’s Autonomous Ioniq car during a press preview of the Seoul Motor Show in Goyang, northwest of Seoul. (AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je)

In the future of transportation, what would you get if you mixed the business models of Tesla Inc., Google and Samsung Electronics Co. with the budget of the world’s fifth-biggest automaker?

Chi Young Cho is about to find out.

Hired from Samsung, Chi has assembled a team of 200 researchers at Hyundai Motor Co., the 50-year-old South Korean carmaker that fought its way to the top echelon of the auto world and is now struggling to stem flagging sales in some of its biggest markets. His job is to catapult Hyundai into the forefront of technologies that are upending transportation.

Late to the game, Hyundai is developing vehicles and software systems for a planned driverless taxi service to compete with both its traditional rivals like Nissan Motor Co. and General Motors Co., and tech companies such as Waymo, the unit of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc., which has vowed to offer fully autonomous cars for public use soon.

“The most urgent task for us is the mobility service,” said Chi, 58, chief innovation officer and executive vice president in charge of Hyundai’s Strategy & Technology Division, in an interview at his office in Seoul. “We’re a bit late, but the opportunity has not been completely shut down.”

He has the backing of one of the world’s biggest industrial enterprises. Hyundai has said it will step up spending on research and development and expand cooperation. It opened a data center in Guizhou province in China and a technology development center in Silicon Valley in 2017 and plans to set up units to invest in startups in Israel and Berlin this year.

New Strategy

Chi’s division will coordinate their activities, creating a blueprint to integrate everything from artificial intelligence to robotics to energy storage. In a break from its traditional go-it-alone strategy, the automaker has stitched up partnerships with Cisco Systems Inc. and Baidu Inc. for connected cars, and teamed up with SK Telecom Co. and Hanwha Asset Management Co. to set up a 45-million-dollar fund to invest in AI, smart mobility and fin-tech.

As the industry shifts away from conventional gasoline-powered vehicles with drivers, software and vehicle-related applications are becoming key to the future for automakers. McKinsey & Co. estimates revenue from mobile and data-driven services in transportation will jump to 1.5 trillion dollars by 2030, fueled by shared mobility and data connectivity services.

ICT Partnerships

While Chi declined to say when the robot taxis will be ready, Koh Tae-bong, a senior analyst at Hi Investment & Securities Co. said Hyundai may not be able to commercialize a self-driving shared mobility service before 2021.

“In order to start a robotaxi business overseas, it is essential for them to have strategic partnerships with ICT companies such as telecommunications, map and big data firms, and have testing periods before rolling self-driving taxis on the road,” Koh said.

To hasten its efforts, Hyundai may buy companies around the 50 million dollars to 100 million dollars scale that could bring in more expertise, said Chi, who previously led Samsung’s strategic planning team. Still, he ruled out an acquisition spree.

“M&A looks sexy on the surface and may boost a firm’s value in the short term, but we are not at that stage,” Chi said, explaining Hyundai still needs to learn better integration. Hyundai may buy one or two small companies this year, and should they work out well, it may try bigger-sized deals in 2019, he said.

Catching Up

Playing catch-up will be hard. GM expects to have a fleet of its self-driving cars ready for a ride-share service in 2019, while Nissan has said it will test an autonomous ride-hailing service on public roads in Japan as early as March. Waymo, which has racked up the most autonomous test miles on roads, has said it is “ really close” to putting customers in its vehicles.

Meanwhile, Hyundai has been battling declining sales in the U.S., where it lacks enough SUV models to benefit from a boom. In China, its biggest market, political tensions with South Korea sparked a consumer backlash, causing a plunge in sales last year. Hyundai is also under growing pressure from the South Korean government to improve corporate governance as part of a drive to reform the nation’s big family-owned conglomerates.

All of which puts Chi and his team under pressure to succeed quickly.

“Speed is crucial in every aspect,” said Chi. “I am asking my colleagues to report a task in a day which used to be done in a week.” – Bloomberg

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