T3 'drove' an autonomous car and it was THIS exciting

Battling boredom behind the wheel of Kia's self-driving Soul EV

You may have noticed that most of the major automotive manufacturers have been dabbling in a bit of autonomous driving technology of late. Volvo currently has robotic machines hacking around Gothenburg, Mercedes claims it is on the cusp of announcing fully autonomous motorway driving, and Ford has just tripled its self-driving development fleet. It's now the biggest in the world.

But what the hell will punters do when driving duty is relinquished to the machine? And how do manufacturers distinguish themselves from one another when benchmarks like handling, engine performance and driver enjoyment no longer apply?

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Those are questions the automotive world are clearly mulling over, as this year's CES was packed to the rafters with in-car technology that turns a vehicle into a portable office, offers in-car video streaming services and even suggests music based on the occupant's mood.

Kia may not have invented the mobile workplace just yet but it has revealed that it is to join the race to release a self-driving car under the new sub-brand Drive Wise. It's also just one of two manufacturers to be granted permission to test its machines on public roads, so it's pretty serious about it.

To iron out any potentially dangerous mishaps, the Korean marque is currently letting its semi-sentient automobiles trundle around a 6.4-mile test track in the middle of the Mojave Desert and T3 was invited to hop in for a ride.

But what is life with an autonomous car like? Currently, it's a bit tedious. The Soul EV in question can be summoned via an Apple Watch, impressive but it meant I had to kill a few minutes while it to slowly backed out of a space and pulled up alongside me, rather than walk the 10-yards to the door.

Once inside, the engineer in charge (of course they didn't let us have a go) slipped the vehicle into autonomous mode and we slowly made our way out of the car park.

The eerie whine of the electric motors filled the cabin as we quietly moved out of the parking space. We approached the first corner and the steering wheel lets out a squeak and rotates to the right. Our Korean pilot keeps his hands braced at all times just in case the machine loses its mind and ploughs us into a lone Joshua tree.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a pedestrian steps out from the pavement and the Kia slams on its brakes. I check my neck for signs of whiplash and make sure the engineer hadn't secretly applied the anchors. He hadn't and the pedestrian lived to aimlessly amble another day. Ten points to Kia.

After lazily creeping out of the parking space, the EV was free to accelerate up to 30mph, which it did (slowly) until we reached a T-junction. The vehicle clearly knew the lights would be red before they came into view because it started slowing long before it was necessary.

Autonomous driving is clearly currently set to 'apprehensive granny' mode, which is understandable considering the suite of radar, sensor, camera and Lidar technology fitted to this car costs a small fortune. We stop at the lights like good robotic citizens. So far, it has been like sauntering around a golf course in an advanced buggy but here was the real test. We were heading for the motorway.

Cue ominous soundtrack (playing in my head). Three large SUVs approach from the rear. It's like a scene from Speed and I'm Keanu Reeves. The Kia hums as it picks up the pace, the left indicator is automatically activated and we slowly creep to the left. This is where we plough into the speeding SUVs. This is where we die. But we don't. The autonomous Soul EV slots itself into a gap in the traffic and we silently accelerate up to 70mph.

We trundle along the motorway for a bit and the engineer instructs me to press a button and marvel as the self-driving Soul switches lanes. The test track is nearly 10-miles long and we all sit in silence and stare at the barren landscape.

It becomes apparent that this car desperately needs a Netflix subscription or at least a chair that reclines to a sleeping position to avert my attention away from the fact that we're in the middle of nowhere, sitting in silence.

The experience was also rapidly turning me into the world's worst back-seat driver. There was very little else to do but criticise the machine's handling skills. "Too much steering input there. Oops, that corner was a bit slow. I would have started to accelerate when the lights turned amber."

But hang on. Finally, some excitement. The engineer slots the car back into 'manual' mode and then fakes a heart attack. He slumps at the wheel and I panic again. This is where we die. This is where we crash into a rock and die.

But we don't. Because the vehicle's in-car cameras track the driver's face and declares an emergency. Autonomous mode kicks in and we slowly creep to the hard shoulder to be rescued by an ambulance.

It's a great opportunity to experience Kia's Virtual Tow technology, which automatically locks on to the vehicle in front and follows it home. Silence descends on the cabin again and I reach for my phone to catch up with Twitter.

As prototype demonstrations go, Kia's sojourn around the desert was slick, impressive and a great insight into what the next stages of automated driving will look like but man, autonomous driving will be dull if driver's aren't permitted fall asleep or binge on boxsets.

At least Kia is being realistic about its timescales. Seo-Ho Choi, head of research at Kia, claims that highly autonomous vehicles won't be on sale until at least 2030 but we will see some self-driving elements arrive from 2020.

But it feels like we need to fast forward five years to a time where technology, legislation and infrastructure allows the machines to fully take over. Otherwise we'll just become a nation of bored backseat drivers willing the vehicle to grow a pair of balls and take a corner faster than 5mph.

Leon Poultney

Leon has been writing about automotive and consumer tech for longer than he cares to divulge. When he’s not testing the latest fitness wearable and action camera, he’s out in a shed fawning over his motorcycles or trying not to kill himself on a mountain bike/surfboard/other extreme thing. He's also a man who knows his tools, and he's provided much of T3's drills coverage over the years, all without injuring himself.