Hyundai opens itself to Silicon Valley tie-ups

Sohee Kim
Bloomberg News

Hwang Seung Ho wants to take a wrecking ball to the fortress mentality at Hyundai Motor Co.

The Korean automaker is the crown jewel of the mighty Hyundai Motor Group, a sprawling conglomerate with companies spanning industries as diverse as steel, construction and financial services. When the company needs metal for its Hyundai and Kia models, it can choose from three steel-making affiliates. For front-ends, seats, lamps, axles, engines and transmissions, Hyundai’s vast internal network of parts makers can produce them all.

Yet these days technologies are transforming the auto world at a blistering pace. And a go-it-alone strategy won’t cut it anymore, according to Hwang, Hyundai Motor’s executive vice president of information technology development. He thinks the world’s fifth-biggest carmaker needs to be far more open to tie-ups with tech upstarts and Silicon Valley giants to remain competitive in the race to dominate the coming era of connected cars and autonomous driving.

“As the systems get more and more complex, we cannot deal with everything,” Hwang said in an interview. “For some areas that we need to fill the gap, we need collaborations of our partners.”

Hwang, 60, is a rare bird at the insular Korean company, whose top brass is dominated by lifers. He joined Hyundai two years ago from Samsung Electronics Co., where he led semiconductor development. Before that, he spent a decade at Silicon Valley startup Silicon Image, where he helped develop high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI), a technology that improved the audio and video quality of computer monitors and TVs.

In the realm of autonomous driving, Hwang’s drawn inspiration from AlphaGo, Google’s DeepMind’s AI system, that captivated the artificial intelligence community by beating Korean phenom Lee Sedol at the more than 2,500-year-old Chinese board game Go in March. Hwang’s targeting a driving AlphaGo system that can autonomously navigate streets and provide intelligent services to the driver using big data.

Hwang and Chung Eui Sun, Hyundai’s vice chairman and son of the CEO, paid a visit to Cisco Systems Inc.’s California headquarters last year to discuss a potential partnership. The heir-apparent Chung is personally involved with development of connected car and autonomous vehicles, Hwang said.

Hyundai Mobis Co., the group’s largest parts supplier, and several of its affiliates meet monthly on their progress developing driving-assistance systems. But Mobis also is reaching out to startups outside South Korea to keep apprised of the fast-changing technology.

Hwang Jae Ho said he’s managing about 80 projects and is in discussions with startups in Israel, the U.S. and Europe on the feasibility of working together. Hyundai Mobis is open to collaborate with competitors and tech companies such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics Inc., he said. The company recently signed a contract to partner with vision-based driver assistance system supplier Mobileye NV.