Hyundai Mobis taps first non-Korean leader to drive autonomous investment

Hyundai Mobis Co. may be Hyundai Motor Co.'s biggest auto parts supplier, but that didn't help it win early inroads with Hyundai in a critical field.

Rival South Korean supplier Mando Corp. beat Mobis in supplying the automaker with a driver-assistance system that bundles several semi-autonomous technologies that are all the rage today. The Hyundai Motor Group even awarded Mando a prize for the technology in 2016.

Mobis, by contrast, is just this year delivering its first driver-assist system to Hyundai.

Stung by the slow start, Hyundai Mobis now wants to leapfrog from fast follower to leader.

To kick the effort into higher gear, Mobis CEO Lim Young-deuk has for the first time tapped a non-Korean to head the company's rapidly expanding Driver Assistance Systems division responsible for autonomous driving. It is part of an urgent campaign to infuse the unit with more expertise and money.

Gregory Baratoff was recruited from Germany's Continental AG and became the new vice president for driver-assist technology in July 2017. The American engineer is a computer vision specialist who began his career at Daimler AG doing augmented reality, then moved to Siemens VDO to work on cameras for driving-assist systems. Continental bought Siemens VDO in 2007.

Baratoff's first priority is to quickly ramp up spending in autonomous driving technology. The new vision for Smart speaks to how much new demands of electrification and autonomy are revamping corporate strategies, even for a longtime technology leader such as Daimler. 


A soaring investment is needed to play catch-up in the race for Level 3 and Level 4 autonomous driving systems, Baratoff said. If Mobis keeps investing at its current levels, leaders such as Continental or even Mando will always be in the lead.

"To put it simply, by 2021 we want to catch up, and by 2025 we want to lead," the soft-spoken Baratoff said in an interview at Mobis' global r&d center outside Seoul. "We may have high growth rates, but we're starting lower and maybe later than others."

The Hyundai Mobis tech center is abuzz with sub-suppliers anxious to team with the South Korean company as it increases investment in driver assistance systems. Photo credit: HANS GREIMEL

Hyundai Mobis plans to increase investment in driver-assistance systems by 20-30 percent each year through 2021, Baratoff said. Headcount is expected to grow up to 15 percent by then.

Hyundai Mobis has about 450 people working in the field in South Korea and 150 at three overseas tech centers, near Detroit, in Hyderabad, India, and in Frankfurt.


Massive investment

"We are now starting massive investment," said Hwang Jae Ho, director of the driver-assist unit.

Hwang declined to give figures. But he said Mobis will boost r&d spending to about 10 percent of core revenue by 2021. Half that spending will be channeled into driver-assistance systems and infotainment. Today, by contrast, only 7 percent of the company's overall revenue is plowed back into r&d.

"Compared with the competition, it's a pretty good number," Baratoff said. "That's a good sign to the outside that we're willing to invest the sufficient amount needed to get these topics going."

Delivering to the Hyundai Motor Group is critical to Mobis, which gets a big majority of its worldwide sales from group companies.

This year, Mobis will begin selling a suite of technologies to Hyundai Motor bundled in its cars and marketed as highway driving assist, or HDA.

The Level-2 HDA package has one camera and one millimeter-wave radar. The basic setup doesn't enable lane tracing to keep the car automatically centered or lane changing. But Mobis is working on a more advanced Level-2 system for sale in late 2019 or early 2020. That version will deliver lane-changing capability and autonomy on highway on- and off-ramps.


Help wanted

Looking ahead, Baratoff is focused on speeding development of Level 3 and 4 technologies.

That will require not only more money but also more outside expertise, he said.

Part of the strategy is headhunting more international talent, but Baratoff also will be scouring the globe for new technology partners.

"That's my goal, to have a very fast development team," he said.

Mobis already has identified two partners in Germany. One is working with Mobis on low-cost, mass-market radar. The other is assisting on high-end radar for Level 3 and beyond.

It is also partnering with a group of South Korean companies to develop a low-cost, entry-level lidar technology for Level 3 autonomous driving by around 2023.

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