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Seoul launched its first commercial autonomous bus service on Friday, with eight-seat electric vehicles driving a 2.1 route in the center of the capital city. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Nov. 25 (UPI) — The Seoul city government launched its first commercial self-driving bus service on Friday with a pair of electric shuttles operated by a Hyundai Motors-backed startup, the latest step in South Korea’s efforts to make autonomous vehicles an everyday reality.

The buses can carry seven passengers and will initially circulate on a 2.1-mile loop around Cheonggye Stream, a busy tourist and commercial area in downtown Seoul. Rides are free during the launch period and the public can board at two stops along the route after booking a seat on a mobile app.

The buses were developed by autonomous transportation startup 42dot, which Hyundai acquired in August.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and executives from Hyundai and 42dot held a launch ceremony on Thursday, previewing the service for government officials and members of the media.

“Our very meaningful first step to make Seoul the leading city for self-driving has begun,” Oh said at the launch. “Starting today, we will provide as much support as possible to accumulate a lot of data and become the city to take the initiative in promoting autonomous driving.”

Last November, Seoul began operating its first commercial self-driving sedan service and in June the city kicked off a pilot project of robo-taxis in the busy neighborhood of Gangnam.

Seoul has laid out an ambitious roadmap that includes a citywide infrastructure to enable autonomous vehicles to operate on all roads of two or more lanes by 2026, with plans for more than 400 buses and taxis to be in service by then.

The Cheonggye Stream buses are equipped with 12 cameras and six radar sensors for reading traffic signals and plotting out real-time images of vehicles and pedestrians.

Jeon Jae-yeon, business development manager with 42dot, told UPI that the shuttles are capable of Level 4 autonomous driving, meaning they can self-drive under most conditions.

However, a driver will always remain in the vehicle for safety. The company and the Seoul government also agreed the driver would take over manual control of the bus at a busy stretch of the route where delivery trucks, motorcycles and jaywalking pedestrians fill the streets, Jeon said.

The shuttles are equipped with large windows and a panoramic sunroof and are meant to be used for sightseeing as much as transportation. In a press release, the mayor’s office said it expects the bus service to become a “future transportation destination for tourists.”

South Korea is betting big on the future of autonomous driving as a growth industry for the tech-savvy country. The government is investing about $875 million to develop self-driving infrastructure and regulatory frameworks and is aiming for the commercialization of Level 4 vehicles by 2027.

The country’s private sector is also spending heavily on future mobility. In April, Hyundai announced it would invest $50 billion by 2025 on a wide range of new technologies and businesses, from electric chargers and vehicles to self-driving cars to urban air mobility.

Earlier this week, President Yoon Suk-yeol pitched Tesla CEO Elon Musk on building an electric vehicle plant in South Korea.

A third bus will be added to the Cheonggye Stream service in early December, and the route will be extended in the first half of next year, Seoul officials said. The city will also launch free driverless buses for citizens and tourists near the former presidential residence of Cheong Wa Dae starting next month.

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