Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Hyundai Sonata 2021: a look at the safety of self-driving cars

The steering wheel of a Hyundai Sonata 2021.
Brian Champagne

That’s the Sonata that Hyundai loaned us merging onto I-15. Nocomplaints here. The 1.6 liter turbo is less than half the size of an SUV engine. Car and Driver got it 0-60 in 7.3 seconds, which is decent considering the trade-off of 37 miles per gallon highway.

And when you get on the highway, it uses radar to let you take your foot off the gas and brake and not run into the slower, or slowing, or stopping cars in front of you.

And it reads the lines on the road and keeps you in your lane. We may have taken our hands off the wheel a little to test this. And the car may have given us a dash display warning after 37 seconds to put them back on. And if we kept our hands near, but not on, the wheel, it beeped after 51 seconds, and then shut the system off after 77 seconds. The Hyundai was doing great, but still let us know we were the ones responsible for driving it.

We took the Hyundai’s more-upscale cousin the Genesis G70 from Logan to Cedar City, a long and sometimes lonely drive, and it did the same thing, giving us a little hands-off time before it made us actually do some steering. The benefit on that five-hour drive was posture; you can enjoy a few seconds of not having your arms hanging on the wheel. But we did not watch movies or worse.

“The NTSB found the driver...was likely distracted by playing a game on his smartphone.” That was a Tesla fatality, one of many that made national news.

“Tonight Tesla confirming this car was in autopilot mode when it crashed in northern California killing the driver.” In that TV report, they say Tesla said Walter Wong hadn’t had his hands on the wheel for six seconds before hitting a Jersey barrier. “Wong's brother telling ABC station KGO the 38 year-old engineer had complained 7 to 10 times the car would swivel toward that same exact barrier during autopilot Walter took it into a dealership addressing the issue but they couldn't duplicate it there.”

Tesla replied the problem was the barrier had been changed by a recent crash. But the driver apparently knew there was a problem and apparently was still not driving himself. We’ve seen video of people sleeping behind the wheel, and not even being behind the wheel. Yes, people trust it enough to ride in the back seat. “The position of the bodies, the trajectory of the impact, they are 100% certain that no one was in the path of the driver's seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact.”

Here’s the problem, quoting from a Motor Trend magazine editorial: “There are no self-driving cars for sale—anywhere—today. You don't own a self-driving car, no one you know does, and anyone who tells you differently is wrong. And dangerous.”

Motor Trend explains that we have driver assist systems, that can do small tasks for small amounts of time. They go on to say that we’re not even close to full-autonomy.

In 2016, Ford CEO Mark Fields promised a fully-autonomous car by 2021.

SOT “And that means there’ll be no steering wheel, no gas pedals, and no brake pedals.”

He was fired.

Autonomy comes in five levels. Cars like the Hyundai are at level 2, helping. Level 3 means the car can drive itself but the human has to watch out for it, and certain Tesla drivers, many of them dead, are showing how poorly they do that.

Brian Champagne grew up in the less-famous Central California but left after starting his television news career there. He worked 22 years in news for NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS affiliates in four markets. He served as chief photographer for KTXL-TV in Sacramento, but worked in front of the camera, too.