Look ma, no hands - it needs help and takes a while to align properly but valet park Soul EV can take itself down into a car park, follow the correct traffic flow and get into the space

Look ma, no hands - it needs help and takes a while to align properly but 'valet 'park' Soul EV can take itself down into a car park, follow the correct traffic flow and get into the space

Kia Motors does not expect fully autonomous cars to be on the road until 2030 and thinks social acceptance is among the issues to be overcome. Nonetheless, the Hyundai Motor Group affiliate is making good progress and can now demonstrate, albeit with some interruptions, a car that can travel along an access road and steer itself down a level to park in a designated space.

Jeongwoo Lee, senior research engineer for the group's research and development division, said in a media presentation at the group's Central Advanced Research and Engineering Institute (CAREI) near Seoul the four global megatrends the group sees as challenges are urbanisation, an ageing society, air quality and connectivity. Researchers are working on making vehicles more environment-friendly, developing better batteries and making more use of solar power. The Intelligent Safety portfolio includes work on vision recognition, sensors and convergence so sensors, cameras, other items in the car - such as displays and controls - and the infrastructure outside the vehicle all work together - infallibly.

Lee said the path to autonomous driving was already clearly defined and was essentially a switch from passive safety to active. The past was simple automation - such as power windows or an automatic gearbox - and the present is advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) such as lane departure warning, plus steering intervention in some cases, radar cruise control able to cope with completely stopped traffic and so on.

He reckons autonomous driving, when it comes, will help prevent accidents, reduce traffic, give people more free time (by reducing the time they spend driving and by letting them do other things such as social media while the car does the work), improve mobility (for those who cannot drive themselves at the moment) and reduce pollution by using vehicles more efficiently and using alternative energy sources such as electricity and hydrogen.

"Automated driving needs social acceptance on top of technical completeness," Lee said. It's all very well automakers eventually coming up with the fail-safe technology but will people trust the car and will every driver want to spend some, or all of the time, letting the car be in charge?

In an obvious reference to recent Tesla Autopilot-related crashes, Lee said there are still "sensor limits" in "abnormal situations". He cited animals on the road, heavy snow and use of hand signals as some of the challenges current sensor technology faces. Also on the R&D engineers' challenge list: insurance liability issues and "privacy invasion" should the vehicle software be hacked.

Lee said Kia was currently at "about" Level 3 on the NHTSA AD scale "and trying for four" around 2020. Automated valet parking, currently demonstrable in a heavily technician-assisted prototype form, is expected to be ready about 2025 with full autonomous driving hoped for around 2030.

Core technologies for AD are "still at the initial stage", according to Kia, with much more work to do on developing sensors, communications and real-time control software.

About 20 AD-related vehicles are on test across the group and the South Korean government in 2015 lifted a ban on public highway testing so it's now access-all-roads except school zones.

Problems encountered so far include inconsistent road markings and construction zones which can confuse and challenge sensors and cameras.

Lee is coy on which suppliers Kia is working with but acknowledged components affiliate Hyundai Mobis is heavily involved - the group is vertically integrated with many suppliers part of the family.

Kia Motors plans to expand its R&D spend to become a global leader in autonomous driving," Lee said.

Development engineers demonstrated fully automated valet parking by sending a prototype Soul EV from the front door of an HMG Campus building along an access road, down a spiral ramp, into a one-way traffic flow system and finally, with much manoeuvring in and out until the alignment between the two white lines was perfect, into a perpendicular parking space. There was always at least one technician in the car and lots of stops to adjust a laptop computer in the boot but the demo showed this very useful feature can be achieved, albeit needing quite a lot more work. One media attendee, who had seen a similar car in action a year ago, noted progress was obvious as there was far less equipment visible in the car compared to the demonstration he'd seen.

It's an encouraging sign of progress towards AD - valet parking is likely to prove a hugely popular feature and it's only six years since just-auto heard GM officials talking about it as a concept to aid city living.

CAREI is one of 13 group R&D centres in six countries.