Kia has announced plans to build driverless cars in just three years’ time, after it confirmed that the technology would enter real-world testing next year.

The manufacturer said it plans to ‘operate a large-scale test fleet’ of autonomous cars on public roads from 2019, before it begins to ‘commercialise’ driverless technology in cities from 2021.

The announcement sees the South Korean brand join manufacturers such as Nissan, Tesla and Volvo in the race to build fully autonomous vehicles.

Kia’s autonomous vehicles will boast technology known as ‘level four’ autonomy, which means the vehicle will be able to drive itself for an entire journey on a variety of roads. The cars will be able to deal with traffic and perform any safety-related manoeuvres without any driver input.

However, the vehicles will have a limited operating window, so they may not be able to function in areas without the necessary infrastructure, such as dirt tracks.

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As a result, Kia plans to introduce the vehicles primarily in so-called smart cities, which use the internet to manage transport links.

The driverless vehicles will be connected to the internet in much the same way as smartphones, and will therefore be able to communicate with other cars and connected objects to build a picture of the world around them.

Such technology could allow an autonomous car to choose its route based on real-time traffic data or instantly summon emergency services if it is involved in an incident.

The firm’s vice-chairman, Dr Woong-chul Yang, said Kia was turning technologies once deemed futuristic into reality.

‘Virtual reality, self-driving cars, and ‘vehicle-to-everything’ connectivity were all once considered technologies of the distant future. As they rapidly become a reality, Kia is exploring how to deploy these new technologies for its customers.’