South Korean internet giant Naver is in the final stages of receiving sign-off from the top Korean transportation regulator to begin tests of its self-driving vehicle technology on public roads. The company confirmed to TechCrunch that it will begin testing its self-driving tech on roads as soon as it receives final approval, which Yonhap reports could be as early as next month, according to industry observers.
Naver is huge web portal operator in Korea, and also owns the nation’s largest mapping platform, as well as messaging app Line and the Snapchat-like Snow. Its interest in self-driving tech is part of its larger focus on artificial intelligence, something that Naver CTO Chang-hyeon Song noted was a key are for his company going forward, “in order to [help it] compete with global companies.”
Beyond that, Naver also believes that autonomous vehicles are an incredible opportunity in terms of data gathering, which is closer to its core business. “In the era of autonomous, the vehicle itself will become a platform for exchanging information,” a Naver spokesperson told TechCrunch. Like Baidu and Google, having self-driving as part of its portfolio actually blends very well with the larger goal of being integral to the online lives of its customers.
Naver says it currently has Level 3 autonomous driving tech in development, which still requires a driver present to take over when the car deems it necessary, and is working towards Level 4, where the driver can actually relax and not pay attention as the vehicle drives itself. It will house its self-driving car efforts under a new independent company under the Naver umbrella it’s launching that will also be responsible for its efforts in AI and robotics, spurred by a $425 million commitment the South Korean company has made towards funding those efforts.
Like other tech companies getting into self-driving, Naver is looking to boost its efforts through partnerships with various companies, though it’s not yet ready to discuss any kind of timing or specifics around its commercialization plans for autonomous vehicle technology. Competitors like Alphabet’s Waymo are already announcing the groundwork for potential commercial service, via partnerships with large automakers like FCA.
South Korea has already approved ten automakers and research organizations for public road trials of self-driving vehicles, so Naver will be number 11 if their approval comes through, which seems very likely at this stage.