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Kia catching up

Kia's Soul looks certain to make its mark (Photo: Kia)

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Gareth Watson
Gareth Watson
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Autonomous driving: a vision only for premium European automakers? Wrong! Suddenly, the Koreans are entering the game. Kia has just kicked off a two-billion-dollar research program – and launched a sub-brand for its autopilot.

The trend towards fully automated or even autonomous driving is something that second tier car manufacturers are increasingly catching on to. Up until now, the development seemed to be firmly in the hands of premium-segment OEMS, but now Kia, among others, is racing to catch up. “Kia is undergoing a very promising and gradual process of introducing partially and fully autonomous technologies to its vehicles,” says Tae-Won Lim, Senior VP, who promises the first partly autonomous cars by the end of this decade. By 2030, the Koreans plan to offer fully autonomous vehicles as part of their product range, says Lim.

Two billion dollars for research

To reach this goal, the company is spending a lot of money. “Until 2018, we will invest two billion dollars in the development of Advanced Driver Assistant Systems,” says a Kia engineer as he gazes proudly upon the impressive test site that the company has built specifically for autonomous driving in the Mojave Desert, California. Yet, this testing ground – complete with simulated routes for highway and city traffic – may not even be necessary. Why? Because just in time for CES 2016 in Las Vegas, Kia was granted a license by the state of Nevada to test their two electric “Soul” prototypes on the state’s public roads.

Kia’s efforts in testing and development are accompanied by a marketing campaign: that is why the the Korean carmakers have launched their new autopilot brand Drive Wise just in time for CES. Drive Wise will encompass all of the company’s intelligent assistance systems in the future.

Five autopilot milestones

When it comes to the development and step-by-step introduction of the Drive Wise innovations, Kia differentiates between several driving scenarios.  These will use different technologies: 

Highway Autonomous Driving (HAD) uses radar and camera sensors not only to detect lane markings; it will also allow for changing lanes, overtaking other vehicles and changing between entire highways without the driver interfering. This technology is supposed to gradually enter series production before the end of this decade.

Urban Autonomous Driving (UAD) employs GPS signals and the vehicle’s sensors to identify the exact position of the car, react automatically to real-time traffic information and direct the vehicle safely through congested inner cities. According to the developers, if all goes according to plan, this will be possible by 2018. 

Preceding Vehicle Following (PVF) uses the car in front as a point of reference when lane markings are not clear or are poorly visible. The electronic system automatically keeps a safe distance while continuously scanning the surroundings, in order to return to self-reliant orientation as fast as possible.

The Traffic Jam Assist (TJA) monitors the traffic situation during gridlocks. Like other current systems, it follows the car in front through stop-and-go. On top of that, it detects potential spaces for the vehicle to move to in other lanes, so as to gain ground in heavy traffic. 

Autonomous Valet Parking relieves the Soul’s driver of the task of squeezing their vehicle into a parking space. With the help of this system, you can let your vehicle park itself without being on board – via smart key or smartwatch.

Parking via smartwatch: the future (Photo: Kia)

Step-by-step with affordable technology

Working on all of these scenarios, Kia not only has safety but also prices in mind: “We want to make the technology affordable,” says research engineer Seo-Ho Choi. To achieve this, the Koreans are using an established system and developing a standard architecture for autonomous driving. The components of that architecture will provide the basis for the independently acting vehicle. But just like its competitors, Kia will launch the individual technologies stepwise – depending on the development progress and political greenlighting.

Hands-free driving on highways; changing lanes without the driver’s input; driving autonomously through the traffic jam and parking remotely – most of the scenarios that Kia presented at CES we’ve already heard about from other carmakers. However, there was one particular scenario for which the Koreans proposed an entirely new, unconventional idea: how to handle medical emergencies and breakdowns.

Towing in emergencies - without the rope (Photo: Kia)

If the driver’s eyes are focused away from the road too long, the Kia vehicle brakes and comes to a halt on the hard shoulder – a familiar feature from other prototypes. However, as soon as help appears in a second vehicle, the touch of a button will cause the autonomous Kia to follow categorically on the heels of the car in front – until a repair shop or hospital is reached. It will be almost as if one vehicle is towing the other. Only without the rope! 

Who do you think will win the race? Can the smaller manufacturers compete with the big players?

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