[Foreign Execs in Korea: 2] Hyundai Mobis seeks to build confidence, forge new partnerships for growth

By Cho Chung-un

Auto parts maker sets eyes on developing superior lidar technology

  • Published : Jun 23, 2019 - 16:14
  • Updated : Jun 23, 2019 - 16:23

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of interviews with foreign executives at Korean firms on their role and vision for change, growth in the homogenous corporate world. -- Ed.

YONGIN, Gyeonggi Province -- What struck Gregory Baratoff, a US auto engineer with a long career background in Germany, when he started working in South Korea was the sense of low esteem that prevailed in his new office.

Since joining Hyundai Mobis, the auto parts maker under Hyundai Motor Group, in 2017, Baratoff has been spearheading its research and design projects focused on autonomous driving.

The education level of Korean engineers is high, he said, but it was their low confidence that prevented them from best utilizing it and moving fast.

It has become Baratoff’s priority to not only pursue internal success in technical progress, but also to seek partnerships with other companies for quick and effective outcomes, he said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“When I arrived, Mobis was in a crisis to be honest. They lost some awards, and could not manage to finish a few projects successfully. It was really not a very good situation for R&D,” said Baratoff, vice president and head of Mobis’ Autonomous Vehicles System Development Center.

“What has changed (in the last two years) is that the situation is better now. There were some technical product level successes, but overall, my main contribution -- as well as (that of) others -- is to create an enabling environment: the way people work and the way they feel. Confidence has returned.”

Gregory Baratoff, vice president and head of Hyundai Mobis’ Autonomous Vehicles System Development Center, poses with engineers at the center in Mabuk, Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. (Hyundai Mobis)

In-house development of radars, crucial for autonomous driving sensors, was one of the achievements.

In a joint project with two German companies, which Mobis declined to name, it developed and manufactured radars for both short and long-range self-driving vehicles in just two years. Before the project, the auto parts company had entirely relied on radar imports for autonomous driving tests of domestic vehicles.

The latest work also includes a partnership with Russia’s Yandex for the joint development of control systems for driverless vehicles. This year, the companies plan to present an autonomous prototype of a Hyundai Motor or Kia Motors car, and build a control system for auto manufacturers, ride-sharing services and taxi fleets in the future.

Mobis’ open strategy for foreign partnerships came after self-reflection of its limits, being directly affiliated to Hyundai Motor Group, the world’s fifth-largest carmaker.

While being part of the group with its trusted reputation has helped save it time and efforts in striking deals with original equipment manufacturers, such a “preferred and privileged relationship” may have also limited its scope.

“We need to see what is needed (from customers viewpoint) and then find a network of new partners to be able to achieve that, because we have few people to do that for the same amount of work. ... In the end, as much as we want to develop from scratch, it would probably take too long,” he said. 

Baratoff speaks at an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Mabuk, Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.(Hyundai Mobis)

Baratoff highlighted the speed of technological development as automakers and parts makers have been racing to take the lead in new areas of connected mobility and driverless vehicles.

In particular, convergence with information technology companies is a must for the traditional auto industry to achieve their shared goal -- the realization of autonomous driving for the future. And Mobis is “in the process of forging partnerships” for lidar development.

Light Detection and Ranging -- lidar in short -- is a laser mapping technology that measures the range to the surface of the earth. Together with a camera and radar, lidar is key to autonomous driving technology. The partnership Mobis is looking for will benefit both, he said.

“It is very hard for traditional tier-one suppliers to become a lidar specialist. The technology is special and new and it comes from different areas requiring optics, telecommunications and others,” he said. “It is not traditional.”

A tier-one supplier is the last step in the supply chain before a product or component is manufactured by the original equipment manufacturer, after which it moves on to be sold by brands.

“They need us because they don’t have an automotive background usually. They don’t know about requirements and qualification tests of bumpy roads. We are somewhere in the process of forging partnerships for lidar development,” he said, without naming potential partners.

The 52-year-old engineer built his career by working with top automakers and suppliers. His field of expertise includes camera advancement development, image processing, vision algorithm and camera sensors. Before joining Mobis, he led camera sensor development at German automotive technology firm Continental.

Stationed in Mabuk, the heart of Mobis’ R&D unit, in Gyeonggi Province, the executive takes charge of the company’s autonomous driving technology, an area where the auto group has been betting for future growth. Baratoff is one of five foreign executives Mobis has hired in recent years. The list includes Carsten Weiss, head of the in-vehicle infotainment system development center.

Despite the technological progress the company has made so far, Baratoff said he was surprised by the “blaming culture” in Korea, saying it damages the effectiveness of teamwork.

“I was surprised how often that (blaming) happened within the organization, and it demoralizes people -- and emotionally on a private level,” he said.

“The idea behind it is if you harshly discipline someone then they will improve. ... But I think it has leads to people dodging and hiding, and not take the responsibility, because they don’t get blamed.”

Top-down decisions can be effective and easy to execute, but they cannot always be right, he said, suggesting that people spend more time in seeking directions.

When asked how the black of creativity in office culture challenges the auto parts maker seeking innovation, he said, “I would not say Koreans are not creative,” referring to the competitive game companies in Korea.

“They can be creative, but you need to create more opportunities (for) that to happen.”

By Cho Chung-un (