Kia Traffic Jam Assist

Kia Traffic Jam Assist

As the auto industry embraces advanced technologies in connectivity and active safety, the prospect of automated driving is being brought closer. Roger Stansfield recently caught up with Kia for an update on their perspective of the road ahead.

Self-driving cars are now an inevitability just waiting to happen, we are being told. And given the amount of time and money being spent by every major motor manufacturing group on perfecting the technologies that make them work, it is unthinkable that they can be halted.

One OEM, Kia, has even created a dedicated sub-brand, 'DRIVE WISE', for its connected-car and advanced driver aids. The company says that DRIVE WISE embodies Kia's philosophy to realise intelligently safe vehicles featuring Kia's latest and forthcoming ADAS technologies. Kia recently announced plans to manufacture partially-autonomous cars by 2020, and aims to bring its first fully-autonomous vehicle to market by 2030. Other vehicle manufacturers have issued similar statements of intent.

The only questions, then, are to what extent autonomous driving will be allowed, and by when, and here things are a little murkier. While some OEMs paint a glossy picture of drivers using the time they currently waste commuting in traffic more profitably while the car drives itself, others are not so sure. There are, they say, lots of issues to be resolved first: the infrastructure to support fully self-driving cars does not yet exist; there are safety, security, liability and insurance questions; regulations need to be changed; and costs will have to come down. And in many countries the public still needs to be convinced. Make that less afraid.

"NCAP has the potential to change the way people think about the technologies," says Henry Bzeih, Chief Technology Strategist and Head of utonomous Cars at Kia Motors America. "The rules might be changed to encourage some of these features. You might, for instance, get credit if you have fully autonomous electronic braking in the vehicle."

It must make life nigh on impossible for anyone tasked with drawing up a plan for the introduction of autonomous vehicles, yet Bzeih seems to thrive on it. He has clear ideas on what self-driving cars should and should not be allowed to do, and a time-scale for their introduction.

"We will have partially autonomous cars on sale within five years, and fully autonomous models available by 2030," he says unequivocably. "As early as this summer you will see our first vehicles with DRIVE WISE technologies on sale."

Kia is leading autonomous vehicle development for the whole Hyundai Motor Group, and recently became only the second OEM to be granted a public-roads testing licence for self-driving cars in Nevada (Mercedes-Benz has since become the third), although with severe restrictions for now on when and where these can be used in autonomous mode.   

Kia already has several production models equipped with automatic emergency braking, automatic lane-keeping, smart cruise control and alerts to warn owners about to reverse from parking bays into the path of another vehicle or pull out in front of an overtaking car. All of this will have filtered right down to the company's sub-compact models by 2020. But two Soul EVs serving as development cars for autonomous driving go even further.

Using a combination of cameras, radar and lidar – the latter able to provide a highly accurate 3D picture of the car and its surroundings – they can navigate towns at up to 25mph, and drive on highways at up to 75mph, all without driver intervention as they steer around obstacles, react to jaywalking pedestrians, navigate roadworks and broken-down vehicles and overtake slower traffic.

Should the driver fall asleep or be taken ill, an interior camera will spot it. The car then stops automatically, summons help and can track an emergency vehicle to somewhere safer. The only nod to convenience rather than safety is a driverless self-parking system which also returns the car on demand. 

"Our philosophy until fully capable autonomous vehicles have been developed is about safety," Bzeih insists. "I'd go further than that and say we are doing this because of safety. We have a duty as a company to provide the safest product we can, and the kind of things we are working on now are huge enablers towards that, but we will continue to need some level of driver intervention for some time.

"The social barrier is the biggest of all," Bzeih goes on.

"To some extent it's a generational thing – acceptability by demographics which have not grown up with technology. In Europe people still appreciate driving dynamics. Japan, too. It's a different issue in the US. As you probably know, we're quite fond of litigation, so the problems are more about the legal aspects and liability."

Will there have to be legal test cases to determine who takes responsibility if things turn bad? "Yes," Bzeigh says. "The legal profession is going to benefit greatly. But 15 years from now we will have a de facto standard in fully autonomous driving. The generation of children brought up into that might never have to learn to drive. There will be a shift in the way cars are driven, owned and purchased.

"Vehicle architectures are going to change in a huge way. We will need security gateways, but it's not just about the electronic architectures. There will be new seating arrangements and new HMI systems, to name just a couple of things. And this will continue to advance the more the car knows what you need."

Although the core technologies for Kia's safety-led autonomous driving plans are already on test, much still needs to be done before some of these advanced driver assistance systems can be put into production. Piloted urban driving will require highly accurate digital mapping and vehicle-to-infrastructure connections, and everything will have to be robust enough not to become a drain on Kia's extensive warranties, which include whole vehicle cover for seven years or 100,000 miles throughout Europe.

"The most complex challenge concerns urban environments, where you have to worry about pedestrians, cyclists and intersections, and we will need good V2X [vehicle to everything] communications there, but that's true of everywhere," says Bzeih.

"We have a very aggressive strategy to ensure confidence in the product. The development processes at the factory are even harsher than out in the real world. It is also important to have the right partnerships with tier one suppliers who have the technology and capability."

As for cost – lidar sensors today command five-figure prices in US dollars – this will be solved by "technology decay," Bzeigh says. "Look at plasma TVs. When they started they were US$10,000. Now you can get one for US$600. The price point is always at its highest at the beginning, but through simplification and integration it comes down."

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