When you hear of self-driving cars, more often than not you hear about names like Tesla, Alphabet, Mobileye or even Apple. But behind these giant players are mobility companies, whose innovation and technology power some of the most critical work happening in the autonomous space right now.
One of these companies is the South Korean simulation-focused start-up, MORAI, whose virtual testing environments for autonomous driving software is setting industry standards.
Founded in early 2018, the Seoul-based company builds simulation tools and test environments for autonomous vehicles (AVs).
“Our founders and I were originally involved in AV research, and spent long hours on test tracks fine-tuning our algorithms and software. However, there was one defining moment that motivated us to start building our own simulation instead,” says CEO, Jiwon Jung.
“We were testing one of our prototype AVs for a competition in 2017, when the vehicle started drifting towards a wall at 100 kph (60mph). Thankfully the test was being performed on a closed track and we were both (my colleague – who is now our CTO – and I) in the vehicle at the time, where we managed to take manual control before the vehicle spun out.
“The fact was, our AV hadn’t been tested as much as it should have, and though we had an academic understanding of the importance of thorough testing, having lives on the line was a big wake up call.”
“This probably gives you a good idea of what our company’s mission is. We are working to provide safe testing solutions for other AV researchers and AV companies. From a Korean perspective, we saw that there weren’t many compelling test solutions that provided localized environments and, in the end, decided to build one ourselves.” adds Jung.
The company was started not long after. The founders gained the support of Naver, one of Korea’s leading tech companies and currently one of its main investors. The initial interest from Naver helped them reach out to valuable partners that helped MORAI grow to where it is today.
The company, which is a member of the innovation agency Born2Global, has been on a high for the past year or so. For starters, it has been rapidly making its presence felt in the space, with a slew of governments and private players wanting to partner with it. Moreover, in November, 2020, the company wrapped up a US$1.8 million Series A funding round.
Speaking about the company’s achievements, Jung says: “The Series A funding round gave us another level of validation that AV simulation will become a key part of the AV development process. We were also selected by a number of municipal government initiatives to build testing environments for cities within South Korea, including the cities of Seongnam and Sejong.”
Grasping the Growth Opportunity
I was keen on knowing more about the technology powering MORAI’s simulation product, especially its key features and the accuracy of the digital twins that it creates.
Jung explains: “One of the key technologies that we leverage are our internal AV algorithms that we developed before we even started MORAI. The traffic that our users encounter in our simulation software is powered by their own autonomous driving algorithms, which helps us add a level of realism to the scene the vehicle is experiencing.
“The digital twin environments we build have different levels of detail to support varying use cases among our partners and users, but the foundation of all of our maps are high definition (HD) map data, and as a result are highly accurate. Of course, there is more to building a digital twin than just geospatial data – we add elements like terrain elevation and 3D buildings with textures based on satellite imagery.
“The main benefit of adding simulation to a verification and validation workflow is the added layer of safety and confidence you receive because the software has been tested in similar circumstances to most real-world situations beforehand. It is also easier to set up emergency contingencies/routines and practice them in case something goes awry during a real-world deployment test. Finally, there is an added benefit that simulation is a perfect testing ground where our users are allowed to fail, and if they do, they can reset and retry their tests easily.”
MORAI has already worked with the likes of NVIDIA, Hyundai and Samsung, which must have been quite an experience for a fairly young company. I asked Jung about the experience and how it helped shape the company.
“They have definitely helped in broadening our perspective of the industry as a whole and are constantly pushing us to improve both the product and our company. Meeting the requirements of key players in the industry is challenging, especially for a new company like us, but we view it as a growth opportunity, both for the company and our engineers.”
Gaining the trust of the public is a key requirement to raise ridership to mainstream levels.
Simulation is a niche within the mobility space, but it has been key to development of autonomous vehicles. Like most other technologies, it is also one that is fast-paced, and according to Jung, one that has come quite way from what it was before.
“We’re seeing a convergence of different domains within simulation. Just a couple years ago, simulation solutions were laser focused on a single or a smaller part of each of the components of an autonomous vehicle system. We already have great simulation solutions for traffic simulation, road network building, vehicle dynamics, and sensor performance. What has changed is that today, new simulators are trying to tie all of these domains together into a single integrated solution that can become a one-stop shop for AV software,” he says.
As for what MORAI has planned in the near and the distant future, Jung says that the immediate plan is to refine the simulation software product to support test scenarios requested, not just by the company’s partners and users, but scenarios that are being developed by government agencies and testing centres all over the world.
Long-term, the company aims to become the preferred simulation partner for autonomous driving in South Korea, with plans to provide technology and services to international partners in the U.S. and Europe.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Jung how soon he sees autonomous mobility becoming mainstream, especially as someone who is in the autonomous space. “Full disclosure, since our core technology and product is not an actual AV platform or service, we don’t have as complete a picture of the field compared to current leaders in autonomous mobility. However, we do agree with the widely accepted view that mainstream adoption is a question of public perception.”
“Gaining the trust of the public is a key requirement to raise ridership to mainstream levels, especially for an autonomous system. At MORAI we plan to become a part of the process of gaining this trust, by becoming a trusted testing solution and showing the public just how well AVs operate – even in the most challenging conditions,” he concludes.