LAS VEGAS – The Hyundai Ioniq Autonomous Concept drove circles around Las Vegas last week. Specifically, the Ioniq drove itself on a three-mile loop around the Las Vegas Convention Center and repeated the drive at nighttime to show that its sensors, including the four forward-facing cameras, work just fine.
There were no tense moments, no times when the test driver had take control. As is the case with other autonomous passenger vehicles under test, it treats the speed limit as inviolate even though the Las Vegas Strip was lightly traveled and others went faster. It didn’t run any red lights, unlike an Uber car did in San Francisco (and which has been blamed on driver error). The Ioniq does take advantage of some right-on-red intersections. Overall, the Ioniq seems on a development slope that would have Hyundai able to release a self-driving car around 2020-2021, about the same as several other automakers.
Nothing on the roof that shouts “prototype”
The Hyundai Ioniq test cars don’t have anything hanging off the roof or side that suggests this is a self-driving work in progress. The only tip-off is the special Nevada plate with an AU prefix on my test car, AU for autonomous. The sensors are all integrated into the bodywork of the car. There are a dozen sensors in all, including four cameras mounted at the top of the windshield. Optical is the cheapest way to track objects, although the car also has multiple radar and lidar sensors that support each other.
In the camera array at the top of the windshield, there’s pair of stereo cameras (the white eyeballs in the photo above) used to monitor traffic on either side of a single-purpose traffic light phase camera aimed slightly upward. Translation: It looks for traffic lights and whether they’re green, yellow, or red (the phase). To the right of that is the mirror mount (no cameras); on the far right is the Ioniq’s Mobileye/TRW pedestrian detection and lane departure warning camera.
Behind the grille and in the bumper shroud are three IBEO lidar units plus radar, a 45-degree long-range radar array and 90-degree mid-range radar. The front/side lidar covers 110 degrees (illustration below), overlapping a pair of 150-degree side/rear radar units. That gives 360 degrees of coverage. The only sensor blind spot is a small space next to the doors, but anything there would been picked up by the front side lidar or rear side radar and the information passed along to the adjacent sensor. The maps, Hyundai says, are self-developed.
Hyundai’s development plan is to make the autonomous-driving components more affordable so buyers in five or so years won’t suffer sticker shock. The lidar sensors, for instance, cover 130 degrees not 360; lidar is the most expensive of the vision components. Until recently, a lidar scanner cost $ 70,000, then $ 8,000 (still pricey), now Osram has announced development of a laser diode lidar with no moving parts; the chipset in quantity could cost less than $ 50.
A smooth ride, no driver interventions
Our trip was about three miles, starting from the Westgate Hotel (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton) next to the Las Vegas Convention Center. Hyundai’s test driver pilots the car a hundred yards or so out of the parking lot, turns right, and engages autonomous mode. The route takes us north on Paradise Road, right on Sahara Road, right on Joe W. Brown (the curving road behind the Westgate and convention center), right on Desert Inn Road, right on Paradise again, past the LVCC, and right into the Westgate parking lot (autonomous mode disengaged).
The passenger compartment in front looks much the same as on a production vehicle, except for a yellow and red emergency-stop button on the center stack. In back are two LCDs attached to the seat backs. The left displays a video view of what the traffic light camera sees; a box forms around the traffic lights as soon as they’re identified. The right display is the sensor view of what’s on the road, the sensed curbs / projections, and the mapped curbs / projections.
The thing first-time passengers notice is that the car moves sedately: very smooth acceleration and braking, smooth turns, and never going above the speed limit. Las Vegas wasn’t very crowded mid-morning a week and a half before Christmas, but if pedestrians were around and near a crosswalk, the car would have slowed to determine if they were about to step into the crosswalk. A stopped car blocks our travel lane; the sensors pick it up (you can see the car outlined on the sensor / map display), our Ioniq puts on its left blinker, looks for an opening, moves left, passes the stopped car, and then moves back into the right lane.
The ride is uneventful, much the same as on other self-driving cars I’ve been in: a Ford Fusion driven near the company’s Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters, and a Delphi / Mobileye Audi Q5 in Pittsburgh, in the shadow of Carnie Mellon University, a spin-off of which provided the self-drive algorithms. All the cars stay well within the speed limit.
Works in the dark, too
We rode the circuit in the early evening as well. It works much the same as during daylight. The sensors, including the four cameras, have enough light from the street lights, other cars, and our own headlamps to map the area and possible obstructions.
We made several right turns on red. On other autonomous test cars I’ve been in, they didn’t make rights on red, although it was unclear if the cars were programmed that way or if the conditions weren’t right. Hyundai says the Ioniq can make a right on red if the traffic crossing right to left has a left turn arrow and cars are turning left (that is, onto the same street as the Ioniq is leaving).
There was one brief unsettled moment. We were moving in the right lane while in the left lane traffic was stopped and backed up; a pickup truck stuck its nose just over the lane marking, seeing if traffic would stop. Our car slowed, stopped, and then when it was clear started up again. The driver didn’t need to take over.
Ioniq comes in 3 flavors, will take on Prius, then self-driving
The 2017 Hyundai Ioniq comes to market this winter. There will be three versions, arriving in this order: Ioniq electric vehicle (124 miles stated range) and Ioniq hybrid in the winter, followed by the Ioniq plug-in hybrid (27 miles on battery) in summer 2017. When it ships, the Ioniq Blue hybrid, an offshoot of the Ioniq hybrid, will have the best EPA rating, 58 mpg combined (57 mpg city, 29 mpg highway), besting the Toyota Prius Eco’s 58 mpg combined. Both cars get a special low-rolling-resistance tire-and-wheel package to wheedle an extra 1-2 mpg from the the mainstream hybrid. The Ioniq Blue may come in at under 3,000 pounds, besting the Prius Eco’s 3,033.
The car is a little snug in back and there’s a reason: It’s not Sonata-sized, but rather, at 176 inches, four inches smaller than the compact Hyundai Elantra.
Hyundai engineers say they want to do everything possible to make Ioniq’s three powertrain versions and the autonomous system seem as normal as possible and to keep the prices reasonable. Thus the interest in optical sensors, the cheapest of three three types (lidar, radar, optical). There is the possibility that costly moving lidar can be replaced by cheaper solid state lidar. One lidar vendor, Osram, claims a solid state lidar module could be less than $ 50 in quantity, one-hundredth the cost of some moving lidar modules in use today.
Autonomous driving consortium via World Economic Forum
Hyundai is one of 27 companies taking part in a consortium of automakers, component suppliers, insurers, and service providers working on autonomous driving. It’s a spin-off from the World Economic Forum, formed in May 2016.
The big players are Toyota, Nissan, General Motors, Volkswagen, BMW, Hyundai, and Volvo. Insurers include Liberty Mutual and Sompo Holdings (Japan). Qualcomm, Ericsson, Uber, and UPS make up the tech and service providers. Notable non-participants include Apple, Ford, Google, and Tesla.
There are other consortiums focused on assisted or autonomous driving, such as the 5G Automotive Association, which seeks support for cellular communications interacting among cars: Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia, and Qualcomm.