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Hyundai Nexo: A driverless car with its own power station

The Hyundai Nexo: a prototype like no other. (Photo: Huyndai)

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Faster, higher, stronger – for Hyundai, the Olympic motto clearly is a guiding principle. During the recent winter games on their home turf in Pyeongchang, the car manufacturer was going for gold – in two disciplines. With a fuel cell and an autopilot system, they want their new Nexo to be the most advanced car in the world.

Rob Ewitt is confused. The ice hockey fan only wanted to get a quick ride to the next venue, and now he appears to be taking a trip into the future. The young man from Canada is sitting in one of the five Nexos that Hyundai brought to Pyeongchang to demonstrate the current state of research on automated driving. For two weeks, the unremarkable SUV ferried people between sports venues on a course of about 15 kilometers, traversing roundabouts, mastering pedestrian crossings and bus lanes, stopping at traffic lights and remaining unfazed by fans running across the four-lane road celebrating victories.

But even if Ewitt looks at the friendly Hyundai engineer in disbelief as he presses the button usually reserved for cruise control and puts his hands into his lap, the steering wheel turning itself, the journey through the Olympic city is nothing special. Car manufacturers have been demonstrating for years that autopilot systems can master complex situations in city traffic. Even Hyundai. Take their impressive test route through Las Vegas at the 2017 CES, for example. And still, the test driver seems relieved when the Nexo doesn’t make a smooth turn or when it fails to spot an obstacle until the last minute. After all, if everything goes well, nobody would believe him when he says the market introduction of such systems might still take a while.

The first automated vehicle with a fuel cell

The Nexo is a prototype like no other. The 4.67 meter-long SUV is the first vehicle with both automated driving technology and a fuel cell. "We are combining two of the most important future trends in our industry in just one car," says project leader Sae Hoon Kim, believing each form of technology will enhance the development of the other. Even though the range of a fuel-cell vehicle is far from being as crucial as that of an electric vehicle, given that the Nexo has a range of around 800 kilometers and can be recharged in just a few minutes (rather than hours), autopilot systems are still considered more economical and efficient than any human driver. And as the multitude of sensors and control units for autonomous driving use an average of 1.5 kW of electrical power, it makes sense to have your own power station on board.

No hands: a test ride in the Hyundai Nexo. (Photo: Hyundai)

Unlike the LIDAR sensors discretely installed on the front, sides and rear of the Nexo, or the high-resolution stereo camera behind the windscreen, the drivetrain is no longer a one-off. It will now be mass produced – something that Kim is particularly pleased about. After the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity, the Nexo is the third fuel-cell vehicle on the market: starting in Korea in spring and Europe after the summer break, with a price tag of around 60,000 euros.

The technology that Hyundai is relying on is nothing new; the existing research simply didn’t have a chance given the focus on battery-operated vehicles. This neglect was not a decision based on objective criteria says Sae Hoon Kim in defense of the "cold combustion of hydrogen", blaming both politics and society. He believes that the success of Tesla has resulted in the world committing to battery vehicles, with many manufacturers reorganizing their development budgets accordingly. "This is a mistake," he says, providing some tangible advantages of alternatives. Firstly, it is easier to store hydrogen than electricity, secondly, hydrogen can be produced from renewable sources and last but not least, refueling takes only a few minutes – rather than the many hours needed for electric cars. Unfortunately, according to Sae Hoon Kim, there are even fewer refueling stations for hydrogen than charging stations for electric cars. "But what is not, may still become!"   

Huyndai’s first car with the Highway Drive Assist

It is not only the Nexo fuel cell that will be mass produced. According to the project manager, customers will also have autopilot systems from the outset. The Nexo is the first Hyundai to get the Highway Drive Assist system. It allows the cars to function almost automatically on highways – just like the Mercedes S-Class or the BMW Seven – with the electronics managing safe distances and lanes. Holding the steering wheel will become purely a formality.

The Nexo clocked many miles between Seoul and Pyeongchang. (Photo: Hyundai)

Just how much the Nexo is already capable of was demonstrated during the 2018 Winter Olympics, starting with the journey to the event. The 118-mile trip from Seoul and Pyeongchang was made at 68 mph, and included both tollbooths and tunnels. Many more miles were then clocked up between the different locations in the Olympic city, explains Yechan Ko, who accompanied the journeys as an engineer and a guide.

During the event, Hyundai built on the experience they gained with their modified Ioniq during the CES in Las Vegas in 2017. “We have significantly improved the technology since then," says Ko: The environment detection is more accurate, the sensor view is sharper and the electronics can now make a more informed decision at junctions and tollbooths. Furthermore, when the GPS signal was lost in the many tunnels between Seoul and Pyeongchang, the vehicles’ sensors were still able to determine the precise position of the car.

The Nexo: there is still some way to go before complete autonomy. (Photo: Hyundai)

Nevertheless, there is still some research to be done, admits Nexo project leader Kim, highlighting the importance of having a strong partner. It was not without reason that Hyundai started collaborating with Aurora at the start of the year. They are hoping for a crucial development boost from the specialists working with former Google car boss Chris Urmson, so as not to just join the race, but to be one of the frontrunners.

A lot of fine-tuning left to do for Hyundai

The Koreans could in fact do with some help from the Americans. At present, the software doesn’t always run smoothly and there is still some way to go before complete autonomy. There are also occasions when the driver has to hit the brakes – when the car heads full speed towards a pedestrian having calculated that there is no need to slow down rather just pass them by, for example. What there isn’t, however, is a lot of time for fine-tuning. Hyundai has an ambitious schedule. According to Nexo project leader Kim, they want to equip the first vehicle with a Level 4 autopilot system by the beginning of the next decade. Level 5 – the first Hyundai without a steering wheel or pedals – shouldn’t take more than ten years. Take note Mr Ewitt: should you come to the next winter games, be prepared for some new surprises.  

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