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Youngcho Chi is about to find out.
Hired from Samsung, Chi has assembled a team of 200 strategists and 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, 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 centre in Guizhou province in China and a technology development center in Silicon Valley in 2017 and plans to set up units to invest in start-ups in Israel and Berlin this year. 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 for connected cars, and teamed up with SK Telecom Co. and Hanwha Asset Management Co. to set up a $45 million fund to invest in AI, smart mobility and fintech.
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 by 2030, fuelled by shared mobility and data connectivity services. While Chi declined to say when the robot taxis will be ready, Koh Tae-bong, a senior analyst at Hi Investment & Securities said Hyundai may not be able to commercialise 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.