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Auto makers acknowledge barriers to autonomous car progress at CES

Kazuo Hirai, president and CEO of Sony Corporation, talks about the use of Sony imaging sensors in autonomous driving applications during a news conference at CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 8, 2018.

Toyota, Hyundai, Robert Bosch GmbH and Lyft show off concept models, but admit truly driverless vehicles are years away


ar makers and tech companies have fallen over one another in recent weeks to show the strides they've made with self-driving cars. At CES – usually a stage for bragging about futuristic bona fides – top executives are instead tamping down expectations about the arrival of autonomy.

Truly driverless vehicles are years away, executives from auto giants Toyota Motor Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co., mega supplier Robert Bosch GmbH and ride-hailing service Lyft Inc. said this week. While each of those companies showed off the progress they're making in the form of concept models or Las Vegas test drives, they're quick to admit that plenty of major hurdles remain.

"It's a mistake to say that the finish line is coming up very soon," said Gill Pratt, chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute, the car maker's $1-billion unit working on artificial intelligence and robotics. "Things are changing rapidly, but this will be a long journey."

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Bettering brains

Toyota’s e-Pallette, a new self-driving electric concept vehicle, is displayed at CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 8, 2018.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda introduced an electric-vehicle concept called e-Palette, a box on wheels engineered to drive itself on set routes.

In 2020, Toyota will demonstrate the vehicle at the Tokyo Olympics, but even then the car may need as many as two engineers or test drivers to ensure customer safety. Pratt said the technology may not be ready to go it alone – and even if it can, the laws may not allow it yet.

One of the major challenges is replicating the human brain, Pratt said. People can sense gestures and the movements of pedestrians and other drivers and predict where they're going. AI scientists are working on this, Pratt said, but it'll take years to get autonomous-vehicle systems to be capable of complete robotic driving.

Hyundai's hopes

South Korea's largest auto maker is projecting an even longer time frame than Toyota for when it'll be able to deliver almost fully self-driving vehicles.

After announcing a deal to collaborate on the technology with U.S. startup Aurora Innovation, whose founders hail from Tesla Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo, Hyundai said it's targeting so-called Level 4 capability by 2021. The fuel-cell vehicle the company debuted at the show, called Nexo, can autonomously park itself into a space and back – with or without a driver.

"We take very conservative steps," Lee Jinwoo, vice president of Hyundai's Intelligent Safety Technology Center in Namyang, South Korea, said in an interview at CES. "We want to test and validate the technology first. It will not be for sale in 2021, only testing in city use."

On Sunday, Nvidia Corp. announced an alliance with Uber, the largest ride-hailing company, and Volkswagen to provide its artificial intelligence expertise to help bring self-driving cars to the roads. Uber's rival Lyft Inc. has partnered with self-driving software company Aptiv Plc on driverless ride-hailing service.

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Hyundai is also betting on its new fuel-cell car, which will be sold in some markets this year, to help commercialize its autonomous driving technology. The car maker wants to expand the lineup of its fuel-cell vehicles to sedans, trucks and buses, Senior vice president Lee Ki-sang said in a speech at the event in Las Vegas.

Vice Chairman Chung said Hyundai is using a fuel-cell vehicle for its self-driving technology because the car processes so much data, which requires a lot of electric power. Fuel cells can generate more power than electric cars can carry in their batteries, he said.

Drivers (still) wanted

Lyft and Aptiv Plc, the self-driving software company spun off by Delphi Automotive, gave reporters rides in semi-autonomous BMWs, and will demonstrate their wares to CES attendees this week by offering trips to more than 20 destinations around Las Vegas.

But the day that costly drivers can be completely removed from the ride-sharing equation – a future teased by General Motors Co. recently – isn't close, according to Raj Kapoor, Lyft's chief strategy officer.

"You're going to need human drivers for a very long time," Kapoor said. "In the next 10 years there will be more drivers than there are today, because the demand for our service is growing so much, and only so many AVs are coming on line."

Seeing the light

Actor Neil Patrick Harris, centre, orders a Lyft and Aptiv self-driving car through the Lyft app during CES 2018 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Jan. 8, 2017.

Companies pursuing automated driving are appealing to cities to build infrastructure that will aid the functioning of their autonomous vehicles. For Aptiv and Lyft's demo in Las Vegas, traffic lights along the route are equipped with sensors that give the cars extra directive on whether to stop or go.

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This will be the norm in the near term, according to Kay Stepper, vice president of advanced driver-assistance systems and automated driving at Bosch. Pilots like the one GM plans for New York City this year will be restricted to validated routes.

"We know we will get to true Level 5 autonomy," Pratt said, referring to when automated-driving systems will be able to handle all aspects of piloting vehicles, no matter the roadway or environmental condition. "But we don't know when."

Kia plans 16 new electric or hybrid vehicles

The Kia Niro EV Concept.

Kia Motors Corp. is the latest auto maker to get amped up about electrification, pledging to roll out 16 new advanced powertrain vehicles by 2025 as it looks to further expand its lineup beyond gasoline.

The car maker – which displayed at CES a battery-only concept of its Niro subcompact sport utility vehicle with 238 miles (383 kilometers) of driving range – will introduce a combination of gas-electric and plug-in hybrids, plus pure-electric models and a fuel-cell electric vehicle that will be released in 2020. Of the 16 new models, 10 will arrive in the U.S. by 2020, spokesman James Bell said.

Seeking to capitalize on the high-tech halo of CES, the South Korean car maker also said Monday it plans to begin pilot testing fully self-driving cars in select urban areas by 2021. In addition, every Kia sold will be connected to a global communications network to help with self-driving and other functions by 2030.

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