Nissan might have spent the past few years promising a mass-market autonomous car would enter into the marketplace by 2020, but the dream of a fully-autonomous car won’t happen for a much longer time. Instead, says Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, the Japanese automaker will be introducing a series of semi autonomous driving technologies over the coming four years, leaving us with a semi-autonomous driving solution by 2020.
“Self-driving cars remain a long way from commercial reality,” Ghosn said at a special event at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Tuesday. “They are suitable only for tightly controlled road environments, at slow speeds, and face a regulatory minefield. That is why Nissan is focused on autonomous-drive technologies that we know will work, and can be introduced over the next four to five years.”
The reality-check for self-driving technology is in stark contrast to the Ghosn of last year who had said at the 2013 CEATEC conference that 2020 would be the “absolute deadline” for Nissan to introduce a self-driving car to market.
The apparent change of pace to Nissan’s autonomous drive program shouldn’t be seen as change of priority for the Japanese automaker, however. As we reported yesterday, Nissan’s Silicon Valley research centre is currently developing a computer system that is capable of assimilating and reacting to data in the same way as a human brain.
Instead of a fully self-driving car, Ghosn says Nissan’s Autonomous Drive technology roadmap will focus on introducing ever-increasing autonomous driving capabilities to its future vehicles on an ongoing basis.
The first of these will be two distinct technologies which Ghosn says will enter the market in 2016.
“By the end of 2016, Nissan will make available the next two technologies under its autonomous drive strategy,” he said at yesterday’s event. “We are bringing to market a traffic-jam pilot, a technology enabling cars to drive autonomously – and safely – on congested highways. In the same timeframe, we will make fully-automated parking systems available across a wide range of vehicles.”
This will be followed in 2018 by a technology enabling Nissan cars to autonomously switch lanes and avoid obstacles. Focusing on accident avoidance rather than total autonomy, the system sounds very similar to accident avoidance technologies being developed by other automakers like Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.
“Before the end of the decade, we will introduce intersection-autonomy, enabling vehicles to negotiate city cross-roads without driver intervention,” Ghosn added.
Unlike Google’s self-driving car prototype however, Ghosn was careful to note that Nissan’s Autonomous Drive technologies aren’t yet at a point where the driver is no-longer needed. Instead, Nissan’s current technology road map for the next few years indicates a future where you’ll still need to take the drivers’ test, still need to sit behind the wheel, and still be ready to take over if and when required.
When operating in semi-autonomous mode, the Nissan car of the future might operate more like a smart phone or tablet computer than a car, Ghosn hinted. “Our vehicles must be as connected as the smartphones and tablets that this generation depends upon day in and day out.”
Finally, he indicated, semi-autonomous technology — where the driver is still present and ready to step in if required — can dramatically help reduce congestion and driver stress, minimise accidents, and most importantly, keep seniors behind the wheel for longer.
“These consumers want technologies and automated systems that enable them to drive safely, for longer,” he said.
What does this all mean for today’s car drivers? While you’ll still need that drivers’ license for the foreseeable future and the dream of fully autonomous cars may still be some time away, the future of the semi-autonomous car is upon us.
As Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk puts it, the future is about ‘autopilot’ features more than fully autonomous driving. And with humans still behind the wheel, we think that’s a far more achievable goal for automakers and legislators to agree on.
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