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Hyundai’s Automated Car Strategy Prioritizes Cost — And Realistic Timing

As tech and auto companies vie for leadership in self-driving vehicle technology, Hyundai Motor’s top priority isn’t how fast it can be perfected. Its bigger concerns are keeping costs low enough for the technology to be attainable by mass-market buyers; ensuring people wary of advanced driving-assist systems are comfortable with fully automated cars; and solutions for legal, regulatory and security issues that will dictate how soon robotic vehicles can be deployed.

South Korea’s largest automaker, which gained U.S. market share in the past decade by adding high-tech content ahead of (and often for less cost) than mass-market competitors, said it will be ready to go head-to-head with rivals in the autonomous vehicle space. And underscoring its approach, prototype vehicles being tested in Nevada and Korea look surprisingly similar to retail versions now hitting the market.

“Some companies are announcing very aggressive timelines. Some of them are realistic, some of them just want to get news,” Mark Dipko, director of corporate planning and strategy, for Hyundai’s U.S. unit, said at a briefing in Las Vegas this month.“We don’t try to do technology for technology’s sake or just to one-up our competitors.”

The new small Ioniq sedan that Hyundai is introducing in the U.S. with a choice of hybrid, all-electric and plug-in hybrid powertrains, serves as the test platform for the company’s automated driving system. U.S. tests began a few months ago in Nevada, and will expand to California, Dipko said, without elaborating.

Unlike heavily modified vehicles being tested by Uber in Pittsburgh and San Francisco (where the ride-hailing giant has sparked a legal fight with regulators) that have bulky rooftop LiDAR sensor and camera rigs, Hyundai’s automated driving gear on the Ioniq is well-disguised. “It’s designed to appear like a normal car, not a science project,” Dipko said.

To see its surroundings accurately, the test cars have LiDAR sensors in the front and rear, multiple cameras for stereo and color vision and numerous radar sensors embedded to create a robust system to monitor other cars, pedestrians, traffic signals and road conditions. These are layered on top of existing safety technologies already standard on many Hyundai models including automatic braking, lane-keep assist, blindspot monitoring and adaptive cruise control.

“We start with a design that is not overly complex to keep it attainable to the average buyer while still meeting performance requirements,” Dipko said. “We’re focused on the mass-market.”

Among the vision-system devices Hyundai uses, the laser LiDAR sensors that create 3D images of surroundings and help compare current conditions with high-definition maps, are the costliest component and need the biggest reduction in expense before driverless cars will be ready for mass-market sale. The technology currently costs several thousand dollars per unit, though suppliers Velodyne and Quanergy are working on next-generation LiDAR that will be a fraction of the cost.

During a brief 2.6-mile test of a self-driving Ioniq near the Las Vegas strip, the performance was seamless, though quite cautious, in taking turns and when pedestrians were near by. Just like many other autonomous test vehicles it executed manuevers correctly, just a lot slower than average human drivers. While the Hyundai technician never needed to take control, the test course wasn’t particularly challenging so it’s not clear how well the system performs when unexpected conditions arise.

Hyundai engineers are developing the company’s own algorithms to control the vehicle, with a goal of keeping the system streamlined in hopes of minimizing complexity, power consumption and cost. Development is being led in Korea by Senior Vice President Tae Won Lim, a high-ranking member of Hyundai’s R&D division.

While Tesla Motors intends to add full self-driving capability to its electric vehicles within the next two years or so, most automakers intend to begin deploying autonomous vehicles in the early 2020s, including Hyundai.

“We’re confident we’re in line with that,” Lim said in an interview. “We’ll be ready.”