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CES 2017: Autonomous Hyundai gives rivals a run for their money

Hands off: the Ioniq prototype drives fully autonomously. (Photo: Hyundai)

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It’s not just about the price tag anymore. Hyundai and Kia are now catching up with heavyweights like Volkswagen, as their technological standards continue to improve. At CES 2017, Hyundai put their first autonomous test vehicles on the roads of Las Vegas. We went for a driverless spin.

At first glance, this driverless journey would seem like nothing to write home about for Hyundai’s Cason Grover. At home, in Hyundai’s giant research center in Namyang, Korea, the company has been testing autonomous vehicles for quite some time. There, senior Hyundai and Kia executives get chauffeured along long test roads in the company’s “village”. However, Grover is not in Korea – and Paradise Road is not private.

The technology coordinator at Hyundai America is on a business trip in Vegas. And while his hands have been off the wheel for the last couple of minutes, his Ioniq vehicle has been driving electrically and autonomously around the huge Convention Center – mastering a 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) circuit with traffic lights, intersections, stop signs and pedestrian crossings.

An autonomous city cruise can hardly be considered a novelty in 2017. Especially in Las Vegas, where the automotive industry has conquered CES for several years now. Here, self-driving cars dominate most of the business chats at the electronics trade fair. However so far, the conversation had rarely turned to Hyundai. “Many people still consider us a dusty low-cost brand that only sells large quantities due to its cheap prices,” says research head Woong Chul Yang.

He is now investing billions of dollars to change that perception. A large chunk of that budget is being used to promote alternative driving technologies – and vehicles like the Ioniq prove that the investment is paying off. As a designated eco car with hybrid, plug-in or pure electric drive, the Ioniq is already a legitimate competitor for Toyota’s Prius and the like.  

Huge investments in autonomous driving

But that’s not all. By 2018, the company plans to spend about two billion dollars on the advancement of assistance systems such as lane keeping and adaptive cruise control. Hyundai aims to offer self-driving vehicles to their customers in the foreseeable future. “On highways, this could work by the end of this decade,” Grover says optimistically. “Country roads will follow and urban scenarios, like here in Las Vegas, are not more than ten years away, either,” he stresses – much like other large OEMs.

The autonomous Ioniq hit the Las Vegas roads for CES 2017. (Photo: Hyundai)

This is not the only topic where Hyundai is in line with most other car manufacturers. “There is nothing that we’re doing fundamentally differently to our competitors,” Grover says with regard to the technology and logic of the Korean autopilot. The Ioniq also needs highly detailed maps with additional information – a team from Korea measured and digitalized the circuit for weeks to collect the data. The vehicle also orients itself with the help of camera, laser and radar scanners. And much like most autonomous test vehicles, the Ioniq drives rather cautiously and defensively: it follows the rather unusual American rules regarding right-of-way and turning very accurately.

The car always keeps a proper distance – even in rush hour congestion. It drives through narrow curves almost at walking speed. And as soon as a pedestrian appears somewhere, all systems become vigilant. Business as usual with autonomous test rides.

A display keeps the passenger in the loop at all times. (Photo: Hyundai)

Keeping driverless cars affordable

However, Hyundai has set certain development priorities differently, according to Grover. “We stand for affordable vehicles. Sometimes, we may have to look a little closer at the costs than certain premium brands. That is why we try to keep the set of sensors as small as possible.” For instance, the Ioniq lacks a Lidar array on the roof – contrary to many other prototypes. And if conventional assistance systems like lane changing or traffic sign recognition already draw on cameras, the autopilot simply uses them as well. This not only reduces the effort but also any abnormal-looking features. If it wasn’t for a second set of cameras installed in the windscreen and an unconventional license plate, you might think the Ioniq is a standard car.

A set of cameras is installed at the windscreen. (Photo: Hyundai)

The second big difference to rival companies is that regarding communication with passengers. Hyundai is particularly keen to ensure that the occupants can comprehend what the car sees, thinks and does at all times. That is why Hyundai has installed a second screen in the front and another two tablets in the back with displays for recognizing the environment. For Grover, this is at least as important as the trouble-free ride that the Ioniq demonstrates during its countless rounds around the Convention Center. “If we cannot win the full confidence of the passengers in autonomous driving, then this technology will barely have a chance.”

Do you consider Hyundai a serious contender in the driverless car race? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

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