Kia Promises to Commercialize Level 4 Autonomous Cars by 2021

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As part of a gaggle of announcements from Kia today at CES in Las Vegas, the automaker has promised that it will put a Level 4 self-driving car on the road starting in 2021. What does this mean in practice? That in less than four years, Kia will commercialize a car capable of what the engineering group SAE calls High Automation, or the ability to handle “all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene.”

Keep in mind that SAE defines six levels of automation, with the lowest being zero, which is basically a normal, human-piloted car—even one with onboard crash-warning systems. Level 1 covers cars with driver aids such as lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control (the highest any current U.S.-market Kia is capable of), while Level 2 cars have a specific mode in which those two features work together to partially automate the driving experience in specific environments such as traffic jams or highway travel, as with Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s Super CruiseAudi’s new A8 is capable of Level 3 automation, wherein it can handle all aspects of driving but with the expectation that the driver will intervene when necessary.

So Kia would be leapfrogging some steps with its Level 4 vehicle in just a few short years. The only level above that is Level 5, which is full autonomy with no need for a driver (or reliance on one, even in emergencies), on all roadways and in any weather. Between now and Level 4, however, Kia plans to operate a “large-scale test fleet” on public roads beginning in 2019. And even when Kia is ready for 2021, it stipulates that the Level 4 vehicles will have to be used in “smart cities” with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication networks and so on.

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