Jeju (South Korea) (AFP)

In a workshop that acts as both a head office and a garage, around twenty South Koreans have one objective: to develop an autonomous car capable of competing with the giants of the sector such as Uber, Tesla and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

Convinced by the project of this start-up, RideFlux, engineers gave up their jobs in the most prestigious companies in the country to embark on this adventure.

Their car, a modified Ioniq (Hyundai) full of cameras and sensors, is the first autonomous vehicle to circulate on the country's roads.

For the past two weeks, she has been commuting between the airport on the tourist island of Jeju and the car rental company SoCar.

This route includes difficulties, including a U-turn, eleven pedestrian crossings without forgetting the heavy traffic around the airport.

For Park Jung-hee, holder of a doctorate from the prestigious MIT in mechanical engineering, who founded this company of which he is the CEO, this journey is "ideal" for developing and improving artificial intelligence systems.

When AFP journalists got into this car, they saw a taxi driver honking the electric vehicle, which was too scrupulous about speed limits.

And it's safe for the driverless vehicle to change lanes and overtake another vehicle.

In the workshop, a giant screen retransmits its route in real time.

At present, South Korean law requires a driver to sit behind the wheel of this autonomous car in order to be ready to intervene if necessary.

But Mr. Park, 35, intends to move up a gear as quickly as possible.

By the end of the year, it plans to offer a carpool service with three autonomous cars that could cover the 400 kilometers of main roads on Jeju Island, in the south of the Korean peninsula. A driver would however remain present, for safety reasons.

"Our goal is to have our autonomous cars drive without driver across Jeju Island within five years," said the CEO.

- A long way to go -

The company that has invested in RideFlux is SoCar, a car rental application based in South Korea, one of the few countries where, for legal reasons, Uber has been forced to give up its business.

For SoCar, no doubt, automated driving will be "at the heart of our future activities".

But for these newcomers, there is still a long way to go.

Over the past five years, major automakers, tech moguls and start-ups have invested some $ 50 billion (44.60 billion euros) in the development of autonomous driving technologies, according to l Market researcher and Markets.

Silicon Valley companies have moved ahead. Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, born in 2016 in a Google laboratory, has already traveled more than 32 million kilometers on the roads of 25 cities in the United States.

After more than three years of testing with a human, called a "safety driver", in the driver's seat to take control in an emergency, she now offers a service in Arizona without human assistance on board.

To date, RideFlux vehicles have only traveled 10,000 kilometers in six months.

"We must collect and accumulate as much data as possible," Park told AFP, noting that careless drivers around the world are responsible for more than a million people every year. dead on the roads.

For him, "the only way for people to feel really safe while driving an autonomous car" is to show a record proving the absence of an accident over a long period.

Technology is behind South Korea’s twelfth economic power, and the government is promoting the development of driverless cars, which it believes will drive growth.

It plans to install intelligent transportation systems on its 5,400 km of highway by 2024 to allow communication between vehicles and infrastructure.

South Korea was the first country to launch the 5G network nationwide.

© 2020 AFP