Tech by VICE

How South Korea Imagines the Future of Cars

Kia and Hyundai employees presented some out-there concepts at an R&D festival this month.

by Davey Brett
Oct 27 2015, 1:35pm

Image: Kia Hyundai

Visitors travelling along the vast network of roads at Kia and Hyundai's Namyang R&D centre are told not to take pictures. The facility, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seoul in South Korea, is one of a handful of crucial design centres for both automobile manufacturers around the world. Boasting a site bigger than 500 football fields and a staff of over 10,000, it's understandable that they might want to keep certain new things on the down-low.

There are exemptions to this rule, however—one of which is the annual Ideas Festival which took place earlier this month. Now in its sixth year, the festival is a chance for Kia and Hyundai employees to flex their creative muscle, with six months to design and create a concept in accordance with a theme in a bid to win prizes.

The Ucan Concert car with built-in keyboard and drum kit. Image: Kia Hyundai

A team called Ucan Concert won the grand prize for its musical car, despite it having the potential to be one of the most irritating motoring inventions ever devised. But other concepts shed light on where the future of mobility could be headed, straddling the weird, wonderful, and strange under this year's theme of "joint journey for a better future." Here are some that caught my eye.

Driving Expansion

The Driving Expansion concept—note the driver wearing a headset. Image: Kia Hyundai

Aimed at car testing and driving lessons and one of the most exciting ideas on show, Driving Expansion uses augmented reality technology to create courses for drivers. Wearing an AR headset, the person behind the wheel can drive through a computer-modelled course, when in reality they're on a flat empty surface. The inspiration behind the idea came from the lengthy time taken by employees to set up a variety of different courses to test vehicles. The tech requires less space, but provides a more natural and realistic experience than a stationary driving simulator and has promising potential for driving lessons. The L-plate parallel-park of the future just got a little less stressful.

Solar Dream

Solar Dream converting into a people carrier. Image: Kia Hyundai

What the Solar Dream team lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in ideas. Rooted in attempts to ease the mobility problems of poorer communities indeveloping nations (a running theme throughout the festival), the solar-powered transformable vehicle is an interesting prospect. Comprising a car base with attached motorised bikes and the option to expand into a van or people carrier by adding a larger middle carriage, the vehicle was an intriguing one-vehicle-fits-all design. The prototype on show was far from ready, but the idea of one solar-powered vehicle to fit the multiple requirements of a community could easily be transferred to the mobility needs of the city-based family of the future.

Eye Car

The inflatable car seat in the Eye Car. Image: Kia Hyundai

Geared towards parents, the Eye Car team modified an SUV with a back seat that protruded sideways through the passenger door so that a parent can safely and effectively attach a child seat and see to their child without straining into the car. The SUV also comprised a blow-up child seat, powered by an internal compressor that folds into the backseat, removing the need to carry one around. The team's more innovative tech came with a two-way monitor system. While still looking forward, the driver is able to glance at a monitor (installed in the rear view mirror) to check on the child in the back, with the child able to see the driver's face at all times. The driver can also change the child's monitor to a cartoon.

Origine

Origine. Image: Kia Hyundai

Origine was the festival's most concept-looking of concepts. Comprising a passenger seat set on the axle of two large wheels, controlled by a joystick on each side, the circular design results in a personal mobility vehicle that can conquer a variety of terrains and surfaces while keeping the driver perfectly upright for a smooth drive. The team's rationale was rooted in the idea of "little cars for little families" and the need for precise and streamlined personal mobility. The vehicle apparently requires no driving license in South Korea and offers around 20 hours battery life with a top speed of 50-60 km/h.

Avatar

On the right, a person in a gaming car seat remotely drives the vehicle on the left. Image: Kia Hyundai

The Avatar concept was perhaps the festival's most intriguing. Billed clumsily as "a way to get the husband and car home safely after too many at the bar," the idea involves someone remotely driving a car from the comfort of their own home, using an Oculus Rift-style virtual reality headset. Cameras in the car allow the remote driver a 120-degree sphere of vision, with the potential to use other externally mounted cameras. The home setup involves a classic gaming-style driving seat and wheel, using a data connection (due to latency issues, the technology would require 4G plus). According to the team, the Avatar system could be implanted into any commercially available car, but they predict a further five years before the technology is fully operational. Basically a drone-car setup, what the idea seemingly loses out to fully autonomous cars, it could make up for in scenarios that require more precise, unmaned driving.

What was clear from all the concepts was that the designers saw the future not in cars, speed, and aesthetics, but in more general mobility. With future populations mostly confined to megacities and autonomous driving looming ever larger on the horizon, ideas shifted to how smaller groups of people could get around efficiently in the meantime.