Riding in the driver-less car of tomorrow

MOJAVE, California—The Kia engineer standing beside me at a parking lot sidewalk spoke to his smartwatch and said, “Pick me up.”

More than a hundred meters away, a car’s daytime driving lights turned on and, with a barely audible hum, it glided towards us. As the car approached us, all I could hear was the faint rumble of the tires on asphalt. No engine sound emanated from under the hood; this is, after all, a full-electric car.

We got inside the vehicle—a Kia Soul EV (electric vehicle) dressed in bold graphics proclaiming it to be an autonomous vehicle.

The engineer sat in the driver’s seat while I planted myself on the passenger seat beside him. Despite being in the driver’s seat, he had his arms crossed on his chest and his legs folded away from the pedals.

The car negotiated its way out of the parking lot and drove out to simulated city streets—the steering wheel eerily turning left and right by itself. The car would stop at red lights and stop signs. It would follow posted speed limits.

Even more impressive was when we took it to the “highway,” which was still a simulation deep inside Hyundai-Kia’s sprawling proving grounds located in the heart of the Mojave Desert.         

The author with the Kia Soul EV autonomous vehicle at the Hyyundai-Kia California Proving ground

The car tracked straight even with “no hands” on the steering wheel. On curving stretches, it would follow the road, guided by a combination of cameras and sensors mounted all around the car. It will follow the painted lines on the road as well as the physical road itself (if there are no painted lines) via GPS and the car’s onboard navigation system.

In one exercise, a “stalled” car was parked in the outermost lane of a “freeway”—the same lane where we were driving. Without any in put from the engineer in the driver’s seat, the car slowed down, signaled to the left, and changed lanes to avoid the stalled car. All. By. Itself.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough. Two cars zoomed past on either side of the Soul EV as if they were racing each other. The autonomous vehicle wasn’t the least bit bothered. Then one of the vehicles suddenly cut into our lane and braked in front of us. The autonomous Kia automatically braked to avoid slamming into the other car. It didn’t even brake too hard—just enough to avoid the suddenly decelerating car in front. That’s some serious algorithmic programming right there.     

But for me, the piece de resistance was when the Kia engineer, who had set the car on full manual mode and was driving it himself like a normal car, feigned a heart attack and slumped on his side, eyes closed.

Thanks to a camera that monitors a driver’s alertness (by measuring the number of times he or she blinks), the car instantly detected an unconscious driver and instantaneously went on Emergency Stop mode. It sounded an alarm inside the car, slowed down, signaled to the right, parked on the road shoulder, activated its hazard lights then—get this—called 911.   

If that doesn’t—yet—blow your mind, check this out: A recovery vehicle (ambulance, your spouse’s car, etc.) parked in front of the Kia, the driver of the second vehicle then got off, opened the Kia Soul’s driver’s door (Emergency Stop mode unlocks the doors to aid rescue), pushed a button on the steering wheel, activating a “Follow Vehicle” function. The autonomous Kia then tailed the lead car to the “hospital.”

The road to driver-less cars is shorter than you think.

Incredible, right? But I experienced and documented all these in photos and on video. According to Kia, you can buy a car with all these capabilities and technologies as early as 2025. That’s a mere nine years from now.

And remember, all these hardware were fitted not on a futuristic concept car, but on a Kia Soul that looks exactly like the one you can buy off a Kia showroom today.

The technology is available right now (the Kia Soul EV is actually already sold in some markets). They just need to make sure everything else is foolproof before commercializing autonomous technology. Accidents can happen from a million variables. And they want to make sure they’ve got all bases covered—especially in litigation-happy countries like the U.S. The U.S. state of Nevada, in fact, recently granted Kia a special license to test the new technologies on public roads.

This is the future of motoring. Traffic jams might worsen, but despite this inevitability, the future promises a more pleasant and productive driving experience.

Stuck in traffic? Go full-auto then watch a movie, open your laptop, or doze off. The car will safely and surely get you to your destination.

Autonomous Vehicle technologies

Kia’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) currently being developed include six key technologies to improve safety and convenience for owners: Highway Autonomous Driving (HAD), Urban Autonomous Driving (UAD), Preceding Vehicle Following (PVF), Emergency Stop System (ESS), Traffic Jam Assist (TJA) and Autonomous Valet Parking.

Highway Autonomous Driving (HAD)

HAD will utilize Kia’s radar and LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging radar) systems to interpret lane markings, allowing the car to stay in its lane and switch into others to overtake or change road. This comprehensive system removes the necessity for drivers to use the steering wheel, indicators or acceleration and brake pedals in many situations, while displaying key information on the LCD head-up display (HUD).

Emergency Stop System (ESS)

ESS, paired with an advanced Driver Status Monitoring (DSM) system, uses sensors to monitor the position of the driver’s face to ensure their full attention while at the wheel. If it detects that the driver has fallen asleep, or the driver’s gaze isn’t focused on the road ahead for too long, ESS automatically directs the car to an appropriate side lane and safely parks itself, removing the car and driver out of harm’s way.

Urban Autonomous Driving (UAD)

UAD allows the car to navigate safely through densely populated city streets, using GPS, lane data, and nearby structure recognition to pinpoint precisely where the car is and where it is headed. UAD also utilizes V2X communication to classify surrounding objects such as pedestrians, bicycles and cars, and measure their proximity to the car, and ‘read’ traffic lights and road signs at the side of the road.

Traffic Jam Assist (TJA)

TJA tracks the vehicle in front during high-traffic conditions, and identifies appropriate spaces in other lanes to move in to safely and gain more ground in heavy congestion. The system uses external sensors to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front at all times, and only maneuvers when safe spaces are available.

Autonomous Valet Parking

Autonomous Valet Parking will enhance Kia’s existing Smart Parking Assist System (SPAS), by allowing drivers to exit the car and watch the vehicle park itself remotely, activated using the smart key or a smartwatch. Requiring no steering input from the driver, the car can approach an available parking space and maneuver into it quickly and easily. The GPS-operated Parking Minder system on the Kia Telematics app lets drivers relocate their autonomously-parked car when they return to it.

Preceding Vehicle Following (PVF)

PVF functions in place of Kia’s lane recognition systems (LKAS, LDWS) if there is no decipherable lane marking, or if the road is under construction. While monitoring the car’s surroundings, PVF carefully tracks the direction and speed of the vehicle in front and calculates its own path, maintaining a safe distance.

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