Seoul launches commercial self-driving shuttle service

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SEOUL, Nov. 29 (UPI) — South Korea’s capital city unveiled a commercial driverless car service Monday, the first step in an ambitious plan to bring autonomous vehicles into everyday life over the next five years.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon led a ceremony Monday afternoon to launch the pilot project of three self-driving sedans in the western neighborhood of Sangam-dong.

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“Autonomous driving is not a technology of the future anymore,” Oh said. “It is already here with us. Today, public self-driving vehicles have started to serve our citizens.”

The three cars will carry passengers on a pair of routes over roughly 2.3 square miles, covering a busy subway station, apartment complexes and office buildings. The city said it will expand the fleet by three more vehicles, including a bus, by the end of December.

Users will be able to hail a ride using a custom app and won’t have to pay during the first month of service. Starting in January, a fare will be charged — pricing has not been established yet, but officials have said it will cost no more than $1 for the bus and $2.50 for a car ride.

The vehicles are operated by two private companies, 42dot and SWM, under a license from the city government.

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In 2022, Seoul plans to start expanding services to other parts of the city, bringing fully automated robot taxis to Gangnam early in the year and running self-driving buses in the downtown area by April.

By 2026, Seoul will have more 300 autonomous vehicles on the roads, at a cost of $125 million, the mayor’s office said in a release.

Mayor Oh became the first passenger of the new self-driving service Monday, taking a 1.8-mile ride through an area in Sangam-dong known as Digital Media City, in which several broadcasters and IT companies are located.

Afterward, he told reporters that he didn’t notice any major differences from an ordinary car trip.

“I was a little bit anxious at first,” Oh said. “But [the vehicle] started slowly, and when it stopped, I felt as if I was in a car driven by a very skilled driver. It’s incredibly fun to start such an experiment in the middle of Seoul.”

Onlookers said they were interested in trying out the new vehicles for themselves.

“I’m very curious,” said Lee Kwang-su, 65. “I want to learn more about the technology first, but I think I will try it if I get a chance.”

The mayor said that the data and experience from this pilot project would be invaluable as Seoul looks to become one of the world’s top cities for autonomous driving.

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“Many cities around the world have entered a state of competition for autonomous driving,” he said. “We will spare no effort to help Seoul become a leading city in the competition.”

Seoul is not the first city to commercialize driverless service — ongoing projects elsewhere include Google‘s Waymo One ride-hailing service in the Phoenix suburbs and Baidu’s robotaxi service in Beijing.

But South Korea has its eyes on being a global leader in the entire future mobility industry, from electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles to flying cars to autonomous driving.

“The self-driving market is a golden market to revitalize the economy and create new jobs,” President Moon Jae-in said in 2019. He predicted that more than half of cars sold in South Korea in 2030 would be self-driving and the country is investing some $1.9 billion in building out the infrastructure to support the industry.

South Korea’s private sector also is spending big on future mobility, with investments of some $50 billion lined up over the next decade.

On Monday, automaker Hyundai showed off some of its own autonomous concept vehicles and co-sponsored a self-driving competition for Korean university teams with the Seoul government.

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