Automobile giant Hyundai Motor Company announced plans to set up a multi-million dollar research center with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, to specialize in developing driverless cars.
Another university, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, will also be a research partner.
The South Korean automaker has agreed to fund the Technion-KAIST center for at least the next two years, with an option to continue for three more years, the partners announced on Wednesday. The academic research center will receive between $1 million and $10 million annually, said Technion Prof. Daniel Weihs, who will chair its Israeli component.
“It will include joint projects in both universities on autonomous vehicles, cars, services vehicles for carrying loads from one place to another, all of which would be unmanned.
The research includes all aspects, from the mechanical to computer programming, along with algorithms and sensors,” Weihs told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Israel is not home to any automobile manufacturers, but that may be an advantage in collaborating with international carmakers.
“It means that we have more flexibility in working with all the manufacturers. Teams from all the major automobile companies in the world are touring Israel to see what they can pick up,” Weihs said, adding that several companies have already set up Israeli research and development centers, including General Motors, in Herzliya, while its competitor Ford will soon do the same.
Weihs, who is a professor in the Technion’s aeronautic engineering department, said it is rare for multinational companies to open up shop at Israeli universities. Only a few other partnerships exist between large pharmaceutical companies and hi-tech corporations and Israeli academia. And with the new research center, Weihs expects he will be in near-daily contact with his Korean partners.
In what is likely its first partnership with a South Korean university, the Technion will act as a bridge in discovering and connecting Hyundai to Israeli start-ups in the fields of robotics, sensors and artificial intelligence, according the agreement. The research center will support and consult with Israeli start-ups to bring their products to market and advance driverless vehicle technology.
Around 10 to 12 Israeli graduate students will be involved in the project, along with five to 10 professors, Weihs said. Some of the Israeli students will be able to enroll in an exchange program at KAIST, while a number of Korean students could study at the Technion.
The two universities and Hyundai signed a memorandum of understanding in Haifa in Tuesday titled the “HTK Consortium for Future Mobility Research,” with HTK an acronym formed from the first letters of the three partners’ names.
“Israel is known around the world for the quality of its startups, so with Technion and KAIST’s combined expertise, Hyundai Motor will be well placed to lead the development of the next generation of automotive technology,” Tae-won Lim, the head of Hyundai’s technology innovation center, said in a statement.
Hyundai sold nearly five million cars in 2016 and it employs more than 110,000 people, some of whom work in seven design & technical centers worldwide. If the Technion- KAIST project proves successful for the carmaker, it may consider opening an R&D center in Israel.
In May, Hyundai Motor heir vice chairman Chung Eui-sun visited Israel in order to discuss working with the Jerusalem- based Mobileye, a company developing vision-based driver assisted systems. Mobileye is currently embroiled in a long-running dispute with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem over who will profit from the inventions, showcasing the potential pitfalls of academic- corporate partnerships.
While the Mobileye visit piqued Chung’s interest in Israel’s burgeoning hi-tech start-up scene, that’s not what sealed the deal. Two years ago, Weihs gave a series of lectures in South Korea, many of which ended up being published in a Korean- translated book. That travel led to Hyundai contacting Israeli academia.
With the Technion-KAISTHyundai deal, the company would get “first-refusal” rights to the technology developed at the research center. If Hyundai isn’t interested in furthering a certain product, then the two schools can acquire the intellectual property rights and possibly profit from the product.
The Technion is the country’s oldest university and its most prestigious in engineering and the hard sciences. Located in Haifa, its alumni have had a hand in more Israeli hi-tech start-ups than those from any other school. Three Nobel Prize winners are affiliated as faculty members.
While the Israeli university is advancing driverless technology, Weihs said that it will be a few years before most cars on the road won’t require a human being behind the driver’s seat, due to regulatory and safety issues.
“Technically, it could be done tomorrow. The problem is how to interact with non-autonomous cars and with pedestrians.
People do unexpected things, both behind the wheel and in the street. And machines need to react to that,” he said.
“What the Israeli contribution will be is taking a car and making it smarter and more independent, even though the actual car design won’t be [produced] here.”