efe-epaBy Andres Sanchez Braun Hwaseong, South Korea

South Korea has launched a pilot city to test diverse prototypes of self-driving cars using the 5G technology now available in the country.

The mini city built in Hwaseong - some 40 kilometers (24.8 miles), southwest of Seoul - has a school, a fire station, a post office, supermarkets and just like any other large South Korean city, endless cafes and 24-hour self-service shops. But unlike other cities, the buildings here are empty spaces.

This is "K-City", the largest testing ground for self-driving cars in the world, Ryu Do-jeung, head of Korea Transportation Safety Authority, told Efe.

Ryu added that, "as a testing ground, it is the only one of its kind with a perfect 4G and 5G service," the next generation of mobile communication technology, which has been in place since April in South Korea, the first country in the world to have a national network operating.

"And the most important thing is that it is open to the public, hence everyone, from SMEs to universities could have free tests until the end of 2020. This is the big bet of the South Korean government for the sector of self-driven vehicles," said KOTSA's head.

In comparison to other countries, like the United States or Japan, South Korea was late in joining the development of self-driving vehicles, but with this investment - the construction of "K-City" alone has cost $11 million and the hyper-connectivity the country boasts - it could find itself at the top of the pile.

The 360,000-square-meter (88.9-acre) area is made up of different areas, including a highway, an urban and suburban road, parking places, toll booths and a tunnel.

In each of these areas, signs can be modified along with the infrastructure to test out the technology.

"I think that in 5-10 years, automated driving could be possible," Jeong Chang-young, a PhD student at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, said.

Jeong is training for a competition that includes tests such as stopping when detecting pedestrians crossing and entering a highway where other vehicles are circulating.

"But security is most important and at the moment, we cannot certify that one of these cars could cover long distances without causing accidents. Hence, we have to ensure this safety and I believe that within this period we could achieve it," Jeong added.

Then comes the turn to test one of the vehicles that have already been tested successfully in this mini city, a sedan equipped with two radars and two cameras.

After starting the engine, the person at the wheel activates the autopilot and the vehicle starts on its own and takes a curve.

The toughest part comes next; the driver gets down from the vehicle, presses a remote control from a distance and in a few seconds the vehicles moves without anyone at the wheel.

The vehicle then switches on blinkers and takes a left turn, following the layout of the road, slows down upon spotting and clearing a ditch and stops automatically upon detecting a traffic signal in red before starting again when the light turns green.

In the front passenger seat, the almost 10-year-old son of a Transport and Infrastructure Ministry official looks out of the window casually, as if cars have always been automated.

Who knows, maybe by the time the boy turns 20 or 30, self-driving cars will be common on roads all over the world. EFE-EPA