Samsung quietly begins autonomous vehicle tests in South Korea

Samsung Electronics has been granted a permit to test its self-driving car technologies on public roads in South Korea, but there is an air of mystery surrounding whether Samsung’s autonomous ventures are little more than a hobby, or if the electronics giant is preparing for much bigger things somewhere down the line.

Samsung has kept the news of its small but significant self-driving win quiet, not even bothering to publish a press release – leading to a lack of information that has caused various media outlets to get their wires crossed. Some have suggested that Samsung is developing (or already has) its own self-driving sensors and software, while others claim that certain components of the project are being provided by unnamed third-party vendors.

The only solid fact here is that Samsung does not have its own vehicles (yet), which are being supplied by the country’s largest manufacturer Hyundai, using its Grandeur sedan vehicles in the pilot, reportedly equipped with LiDAR sensors.

A Samsung spokesperson said, “Samsung Electronics plans to develop algorithms, sensors and computer modules that will make a self-driving car that is reliable even in the worst weather conditions.” The company also slotted in a couple of buzzwords in additional statements, saying its algorithms are based on artificial intelligence and deep-learning functions.

This heavily hints that Samsung won’t just be settling for control of displays and in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems, a space it entered via its $8bn acquisition of Harman International towards the end of last year, but it also suggests that its self-driving technologies are still in their infancy.

An $8bn investment (at a 37% premium) is clear intent that the IVI space is a keen interest area for Samsung, perhaps pushing for something like BlackBerry’s QNX software platform – perhaps providing the underlying OS for a vehicle. However, manufacturers may have lost trust in Samsung given the concerning vulnerabilities recently discovered by security researchers in Samsung’s Tizen IoT OS – branded by one researcher as “maybe the worst code I’ve ever seen.”

Added apprehension could arise from Harman’s track record, as its IVI head-units were at the center of the infamous Jeep hacking, although the NHTSA has since closed its investigation and decided not to issue a recall, and Harman would likely have claimed that other components or code were to blame for the gaping vulnerabilities.

Following local reports that Samsung Electronics is preparing for a more aggressive push into the self-driving car market and a re-entry into the automobile space, the company released a statement saying, “the test run approval does not mean that Samsung is making a self-driving car. The pilot run is being carried out for software and solution development for an autonomous car, nothing more.”

This contradicts the previous statement, in which Samsung clearly said it was developing sensors, not just the software.

It’s worth noting that Samsung sold its Samsung Motors arm and car designs to Renault way back in 2000, and has reiterated that it had no intention of returning to the automobile business – a stance it remained stern on prior to its acquisition of Harman.

The South Korean Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure and Land, which approved Samsung’s self-driving permit, has recently loosened its regulations on self-driving vehicles. It now allows pilot runs of self-driving vehicles to have a single driver instead of the previous mandatory requirement of two.

The Ministry also said it is looking at allowing public road tests of self-driving vehicles without manual controls – a move which could potentially give South Korea a lead on the US in the development these technologies.

The Ministry has now approved 19 self-driving permits in total, with Samsung being the first technology company to be given the go-ahead.

Samsung is a long way off challenging the front runners in self-driving cars, or even in IVI systems for that matter, contrary to what other reports have alluded to, but the news could be a precursor for some interesting moves in the autonomous semiconductor market.

Samsung’s Exynos SoC processors handle graphic processing performance for IVI systems, such as in some Audi vehicles. But most machine-learning functions, or deep-learning as Samsung is claiming to use, are carried out on silicon that hasn’t been specially designed for the task, typically GPUs – which Samsung may end up buying from Nvidia for more general-purpose processing.

Samsung might opt to throw its hat in the ring with Qualcomm, a company that it has had a familiar but often strained relationship with. Qualcomm’s purchase of NXP was a huge move in the automotive space, as was Intel’s acquisition of Israeli machine vision pioneer Mobileye for $15bn in March.

These are two notable examples of consolidation around automotive sensing technology, and if Samsung is serious about its self-driving car ventures, it too may dip its hand into the pool of potential acquisition targets – unless the rumors that it already has the hardware and software to fit the bill prove correct.