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Autonomous Cars: Here's What It's Like to Ride in a Self-Driving Kia

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2015

I recently had the opportunity to ride in the passenger seat of a self-driving Kia. This was an amazing, futuristic experience, and it gave me some insight into how Alexander Graham Bell must have felt in 1875 when he received the very first call on his newly invented telephone, which came from a telemarketer during dinner.

Before I dive into the particulars of riding in an autonomous Kia, I think it's important to provide a little background. This whole thing came about a few weeks ago, when Kia invited me to their Namyang proving ground in South Korea, a small Asian country where the people are friendly, helpful, charming and tired of Westerners asking them what Gangnam Style means.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I'm invited to something called a proving ground, I don't even think about it. I just go, because proving ground sounds a lot more interesting than my typical daily routine, which primarily includes things like the living room couch and "Gilmore Girls" reruns. That's how I found myself landing at Incheon International Airport in Seoul just a few weeks ago, following a flight that was so long I wondered if autonomous cars would be waiting for me at ground transportation.

The next morning, I was on the bus with a few of my fellow automotive journalists headed to the proving ground, which is where Kia's staff briefed us on what we'd be doing. First, we'd drive a few new Kia models, and then, we'd ride around in a self-driving car.

Like many of you, I've spent a lot of time wondering about self-driving cars. Will they be affordable? Will they be on the market soon? Will they be gas-powered? Will they mow the lawn as I sleep? So, when we had the chance to sit down with several of Kia's senior Korean engineers who helped work on the self-driving car program, you can probably guess what I wanted to know: What does Gangnam Style mean?

No, I'm just kidding. What actually happened was, they took us directly to the self-driving cars, which were Kia Soul hatchbacks equipped with extensive radar and camera systems, so we could experience them for ourselves. I will now provide you with my firsthand account of the self-driving car experience, beginning with...

WHAT I THOUGHT WOULD HAPPEN: I would climb into the self-driving car and I would quickly realize the future is here, that all of our technological problems have been solved and our society should now view mobility in an entirely different way from this moment forward.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: I watched a self-driving car bump into a stationary object.

I swear this is true. It happened while several Kia engineers were showing off this system wherein you would exit the self-driving car and command it to park using only an app on your watch -- except this particular car didn't park in the traditional sense. Instead, it parked in the New York sense, which involves bumping into other vehicles and attempting to drive away. It only stopped when several Kia engineers sprinted to the door to slam on the brake pedal.

Our next experience with an autonomous car came a few minutes later, when the Kia staff told us we'd be riding in one at highway speeds. Although this should've thrown up a red flag considering what I had just witnessed, I actually volunteered to go first. There were two reasons for this. Number one: I am a fearless journalist committed to bringing you the whole story, regardless of the possible personal peril. Number two: It was cold outside and warm inside the car.

The first exercise the car completed was one where it drove down a single, straight lane and maintained a set following distance from the car in front of it. That meant the autonomous car slowed down when the car in front slowed down, stopped when the car in front stopped and accelerated when the car in front accelerated. Then, it was onto the second exercise, where the self-driving car was programmed to follow the car in front of it as the car made a wide, sweeping turn.

Surprisingly, both of these demonstrations went off without a hitch. I say surprisingly because you don't expect this level of refinement with unproven technology. What you expect is that something will catch on fire, and then a bunch of engineers will run around with clipboards and insist this never happened during testing.

But maintaining speed and following the leader are easy. Many cars can already do this, thanks to adaptive cruise control. The most important demonstration was still to come, one where the self-driving Soul came up behind a slower car, passed it and returned to its original lane once the pass was complete.

This one didn't go as perfectly as the others, largely because it seemed like the self-driving Soul felt timid about passing another vehicle. What I mean by this is the Soul signaled for about 4 seconds before beginning the lane-change process, which is approximately 2 seconds longer than most drivers use their turn signals for a lane change and 3 seconds longer than anyone in the Los Angeles area has used their turn signals in their entire life.

Next, the self-driving Soul slowly maneuvered out of the lane and began slowly accelerating to pass the other car. After increasing its speed with extreme caution and finally inching past the other car, the Soul slowly moved back over once the pass was complete. I would estimate this one single maneuver took about a quarter mile to execute.

So what if it isn't perfect just yet? After my experience at the proving ground, I've come to think of the self-driving Soul as a child. Right now, it's still learning its motor skills. Right now, it's still testing its boundaries. Right now, it isn't anywhere close to production. Kia says its engineers are still working out how the car will handle issues like severe weather, hand signals from construction workers and other driving nuances that human beings take for granted.

But someday, the self-driving Soul will mature into adulthood, where it will finally be ready to play with the other vehicles. Hopefully, this no longer involves bumping into them while parking. Or else I hope Kia programs the self-driving Soul to leave a note.

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Autonomous Cars: Here's What It's Like to Ride in a Self-Driving Kia - Autotrader