The latest fake town built for self-driving cars has opened in South Korea

Self-driving obstacle course.
Self-driving obstacle course.
Image: Business Korea
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South Korea is building a case for itself as a global leader in autonomous vehicle advancements, a space traditionally dominated by the US.

Today, the country’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport announced the opening of K-City, a 79-acre (320,000-square meter) town built to test self-driving cars in real road environments. Only its highways have been completed so far, but once finished K-City, which has cost the South Korean government 11 billion won ($9.77 million) to build, will also simulate downtown areas, city outskirts, and communal environments. It will present 35 different driving conditions, including toll gates, pedestrian- and train-track crossings, and even potholes and construction sites.

When it announced plans for K-City in May, South Korea claimed it would be the world’s largest site for autonomous vehicle testing, at 88-acres (360,000 square meters). Since then, Alphabet’s self-driving car project Waymo has revealed its own 91-acre fake town, named Castle and located in Attwater, California, two hours east of San Jose. K-City and Castle join a growing village of faux communities built to test self-driving cars: The University of Michigan’s 32-acre MCity opened in 2015, and Uber’s 42-acre Almono in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened this year.

South Korea hopes to commercialize Level 3 autonomous (pdf) vehicles by 2020. This level requires a driver to sit behind the wheel for emergency takeover, and is what most carmakers and services have been testing globally in limited pilot programs.

K-City, located in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi province, an hour south of Seoul, is just one example of the concerted effort South Korea has made to advance the field of self-driving technology over the past year. In January, the nation’s largest automaker, Hyundai, unveiled its mass-market self-driving car, Ioniq, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In May, tech giant Samsung received government permission to test its vehicles on public roads. Two months later, rival LG Electronics also secured approval. South Korea also plans to host the world’s first autonomous motor show later this month.

All of these efforts highlight the country’s commitment to becoming a leader in autonomous innovation. In September, transport minister Kim Hyun-mi affirmed this sentiment by announcing she would “accelerate efforts to lower regulations on smart city technology, self-driving cars, and drones to help these next growth drivers.”

K-City is a major step to meeting that promise. There’s certainly more to come.