Hyundai's self driving car masters the oh-so-human roundabout

OF THE MANY vehicles that drove the 120 miles from Seoul to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics, one Hyundai stood out. Not because it runs on hydrogen, though that’s unusual enough. This Nexo crossover did the cross-country trip all on its own. And just like the athletes, the car was there to show off its skills for the crowds. Along with two just like it, plus a pair of autonomous Genesis G80 sedans, it spent the Games giving demonstration rides to fans.

Those rides took passengers on a 4.3-mile loop around the Olympic Stadium, on a route that included a roundabout. That’s notable because for a fully autonomous vehicle (with a human backup in the driver’s seat), such traffic circles are beguiling.

“Roundabouts have sharper turns and require both lane changing and avoiding traffic accidents simultaneously,” says Hyundai research engineer Byoungkwang Kim. They can be prim and orderly, or lawless and confusing. More than intersections governed by traffic lights or even stop signs, they require a human touch.

To navigate this treacherous ring, Hyundai deployed its most advanced software controls yet, processing data from four radar units and six lidar laser sensors at the front and rear of the vehicle, along with cameras to help look for obstacles and read lane markings and signs. As the Nexo approached the roundabout, a display above the glove box indicated it was tracking all the vehicles within 100 meters, in every direction—no head on a swivel or peering at mirrors necessary. In moderate traffic, it waited until it had a large gap to make its entry, then moved with precision and at a normal speed. It stopped once, when another car threatened to enter the circle without yielding.

Other bits of the drive highlighted another side of the Nexo’s skillful humanity. Hills can often mask visibility and confuse sensors if the changes are sudden—and a town hosting the Winter Olympics has plenty of hills. “The challenge was to develop lidar applicable for constant and drastic degree changes on the road driven,” Kim says.

His team also programmed the car to replicate the way humans actually drive on hills—decelerating on downhill and accelerating on climbs, instead of holding the same speed with robotic vigilance. The Nexo topped out at about 30 mph on the suburban roads, but can cruise on the highway at 70 mph.

Back in town, the Nexo used a 5G data connection to receive traffic light information from the local infrastructure network, easier and quicker than relying on the car’s sensors to read the signals, Kim says. The car can merge with traffic, maintain its awareness in tunnels where there’s no GPS signal, navigate toll booths, change lanes on its own, and react properly to emergency vehicles. Human traffic controllers, not so much—so when we got close to downtown, where there were many traffic cops moderating the flow of Olympic traffic, Kim took over the controls from the computer and brought us into the Hyundai demonstration lot.

The 5G network connection enables another Hyundai system, Home Connect. Passengers in the rear seats can access and control devices in their residences, turning on the lights and heat or A/C before they get home, or locking the doors after they leave. It has an Alexa-like feature called Assistant Chat, as well as a health-monitoring system called Wellness Car that can monitor stress level, heart rates, and “mood,” and even set up a video call with a health consultant. For fun, it offers the karaoke application Everysing.

The hydrogen-powered Nexo, Hyundai’s third-generation fuel cell vehicle, can go 370 miles between fill-ups and accelerate to 62 mph in 9.2 seconds. The non-autonomous versions of the car should appear in the Los Angeles area later this year. Hyundai expects to commercialize its self-driving tech in cities around 2021, and have it going everywhere by 2030. And everywhere has a lot of roundabouts in it.

Source: Wired

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