Yesterday, Nissan's "Taxi of Tomorrow" officially became "today." Not wasting any time to look a little further into the future, Nissan has detailed some of its progress toward building cars that drive themselves. It says that the first batch of autonomous vehicles will be ready for market by 2020, and instead of just launching a single self-driving model, it plans to add the technology to several.
In an interview released yesterday, Nissan Executive Vice President Andy Palmer describes the autonomous drive initiative as one of two pillars of Nissan's technology strategy, which he identifies as zero emissions, zero fatalities. Nissan believes that self-driving cars will eventually be "collision-free cars."
With research help from a number of world-class universities, including MIT, Oxford, Stanford and the University of Tokyo, Nissan plans to ready a commercially viable Autonomous Drive by 2020. It will offer several Autonomous Drive models upon launch, and will spread autonomous capabilities across its entire range within two model generations, which should be less than a decade. It also says that the goal is to offer the technology at "realistic prices for consumers."
"In 2007 I pledged that – by 2010 – Nissan would mass market a zero-emission vehicle," says Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. "Today, the Nissan LEAF is the best-selling electric vehicle in history. Now I am committing to be ready to introduce a new ground-breaking technology, Autonomous Drive, by 2020, and we are on track to realize it."
The Autonomous Drive technology will be an advanced vehicle system grown from Nissan's evolving Safety Shield, a 360-degree, around-vehicle monitoring system that uses a variety of sensors to monitor the vehicle's surroundings for hazards, warn the driver and react when necessary. In its fully autonomous iteration, the Safety Shield system will be able to recognize and react to all types of driving scenarios and hazards. At the Nissan 360 event being held in southern California, Nissan demonstrated three of the system's latest capabilities – autonomous side distance control, turning while monitoring oncoming traffic, and overtaking while monitoring oncoming traffic – on specially equipped LEAF electric cars.
Both of the other functions are empowered by an oncoming traffic monitor. Nissan's demonstration vehicle is able to enter an intersection, monitor for oncoming traffic and then turn when it's safe to do so. Using that same oncoming traffic capability, it can safely drive around a car parked in its lane, waiting for a lapse in oncoming traffic.
Nissan describes the overtaking capability as designed for urban scenarios, so it doesn't sound as though it is yet advanced enough to safely overtake a car at speed on a two-lane road. We'd imagine that will be one of the future applications for the oncoming traffic monitor.
The automaker previously showed a LEAF prototype parking itself and monitoring against theft last year.
These latest technologies will eventually join current-generation autonomous technologies like lane departure prevention and back-up collision prevention in putting together the fully autonomous car, one piece at a time. Additional technologies like recognizing and reacting to traffic lights and signs will be among the other missing pieces.
Nissan's strategy is to make the ability to safely navigate intrinsic within the vehicle, without relying on external data. It says that autonomous cars should be able to drive on a highway, including safely maintaining lanes and braking in traffic, without relying upon external mapping or data.
"Interesting point on maybe what makes it, let's say, distinctive from, let's say, 'Google Car' is everything's onboard," Palmer explains in his video interview. "It doesn't rely on the connected vehicle ...The car itself will drive autonomously and also without the need for any particular infrastructure."
One of the next steps in Nissan's development plans is building testing facilities for autonomous technology, which will include real buildings and architecture. Nissan explains that the proving grounds, which it plans to complete by the end of fiscal year 2014, will allow it to more thoroughly test the technology than it would on public roads, the way we've seen parties like Google and Audi do.