Update, 14 December 2015: The Nevada DMV informs us that Hyundai has received its license.
Two automakers are rushing to get their newest self-driving cars approved for use on Nevada’s roads before the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) next month. But the clock is ticking. Nevada is the only U.S. state that requires autonomous vehicles to undergo ‘self-driving tests’ in real world conditions before they’re allowed to be tested on public roads.
According to documents obtained by IEEE Spectrum via a public records request, Daimler is seeking permission to operate autonomous versions of the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E200 and E300; Hyundai is seeking autonomous vehicle testing licenses for two Tucson fuel cell electric vehicles (EVs) and two Kia Soul EVs.
In an application filed with Nevada regulators, Cynthia Albert of Daimler North America wrote, “Daimler is interested in obtaining license permits to operate two autonomous vehicles in the coming months and to showcase and demonstrate the vehicles at next year’s CES in Las Vegas.” Daimler told the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that its autonomous E-class cars are equipped with GPS, front and rear radar sensors, and front stereo video cameras.
Although the cars can detect speed limit and wrong way signs, as well as pedestrian crossings, their autonomous driving mode can currently only be activated on highways. Nevertheless, the German automaker noted, the self-driving E200 and E300 have traveled over 64,000 kilometers in auto steering mode. Most of those trips took place in Germany, but a significant amount of the mileage was racked up on the west coast of the United States as well as in Canada and China.
On 19 November, Jude Hurin, who manages the Nevada DMV’s autonomous vehicle program, took an E-class Mercedes for a test drive on three highways north of Las Vegas. Hurin filed a report confirming that the Mercedes sedan successfully completed highway and freeway turns, adjusted its speed in obeisance to roadside signs, and did “a great job” in congested traffic.
Hurin was particularly impressed by the car’s lane-changing ability, which is activated by manually moving the turn signal. “Fantastic!” wrote Hurin. “The system performs a safety check before to ensure the vehicle can safely [make the lane change]. If it can’t, it won’t move. Great system!”
Hyundai’s demonstration drive took place on 1 December at a Hyundai test track near Beatty, Nevada, and on a nearby stretch of road on the way to Death Valley. In its application to the DMV, Hyundai claimed that it has been conducting autonomous driving tests of its fuel cell Tucsons since November 2014. Each has completed roughly 16,000 kilometers of fully autonomous driving: 4800 km on public city streets, 3200 km on highways, and 8000 km in simulated city and highway tests on closed roads. Hyundai has reported no accidents. The Kia Souls were built in July 2015 and tested under the same conditions.
Despite the cars’ street smarts, Hyundai’s application for a Nevada license covers only highway driving—possibly the company’s engineers had yet to develop the highly detailed maps of the Las Vegas area that would be needed for urban operation. In September, Michael Deuterman, a senior Hyundai engineer, asked the DMV, “Will you let us know the locations to be used for each category [of test drive] so we can be sure that maps are available for the areas selected to be driven in 100% autonomous mode?”
Hyundai’s cars each have three lidar units mounted on the front grille (rather than above the car as Google’s robocars do), assisted by front and rear radars and cameras, and side-facing ultrasonic sensors. This suite of sensors makes several different autonomous features possible, including a fully autonomous driving mode, a less intrusive traffic jam assist mode for highway driving, or a slightly gimmicky ‘narrow path assist’ mode to help nervous drivers squeeze down alleys. The cars can even be equipped with an auto-valet parking system that lets a vehicle’s owner recall it from a parking spot using his or her smart watch.
The Nevada DMV is now considering both applications. But Hurin noted in an e-mail to Hyundai that applications “on average… take about 60 days.” Unless Nevada accelerates the process, neither company is likely to take delivery of its special autonomous vehicle license plates in time to offer demonstration rides at CES, which starts on 6 January.
Other manufacturers, including Audi, BMW, Chrysler, GM, Ford, Hyundai, Toyota and Volkswagen, will also be hawking autonomous vehicles at the technology trade show. Stealthy start-up Faraday Future will be unveiling its first electric vehicle—a car that is widely expected to have autonomous capability. And Nvidia will be announcing new processor technology to power self-driving vehicles.
But while Faraday Future just announced plans to build a $1 billion vehicle assembly plant near Las Vegas, the epicenter of self-driving technology remains in Silicon Valley. “We may elect to do Nevada first this year (2015) and add California next year (2016),” confided Hyundai’s Deuterman in an e-mail to Nevada officials.
Contributing Editor Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. In 2012, he wrote an in-depth article for IEEE Spectrum on failures in AED defibrillators that won the Grand Neal Award from American Business Media. In 2014, he was Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and in 2015 he won the AAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award.