With Tesla rolling out a public beta of its autopilot software to some 40,000 Tesla electric cars worldwide, there’s something of a rush in the automotive world to be the first to bring fully-autonomous vehicles to market.
It’s no surprise then that pretty much every major automaker from Mercedes-Benz to GM, Ford, Volvo and Toyota each have their own specialised teams of engineers, eager to herald the day when our cars do the hard work for us. Indeed, at last week’s Tokyo Motor Show in Japan, nearly every automaker had some form or other of concept car to show off, complete with full or partial autonomous drive functionality.
Launching not just one but three electrified concept cars with autonomous vehicle capabilities, Nissan also used the occasion of the Tokyo Motor Show to showcase the latest incarnation of its all-electric autonomous vehicle technology. Fitted to a fleet of three Nissan LEAF electric hatchbacks, the latest system — called Nissan Intelligent Driving by the automaker — uses the latest in miniaturised sensor technology and computer software algorithms to make it possible for the car to drive itself anywhere with minimal interaction from the driver.
The cost of building each car? A cool $1 million each.
While we weren’t lucky enough to get a ride ourselves, we’ve been keeping an eye on the various ride reports from those who were — and from what we can tell, Nissan’s autonomous drive system is making very impressive progress indeed.
As both Autoexpress and CNET note, Nissan’s latest fully-autonomous Nissan LEAFs are difficult to tell apart from any other Nissan LEAF at a distance. Thanks to the miniaturization of the sensors Nissan is using on its cars, the vast majority aren’t even visible on the exterior of the car, with only a small rectangular sensor noticeable on each front door as well as two tiny cameras perched on top of roof bar-style pods either side of the roof.
Ignoring these small details and the decals announcing it as one of Nissan’s Intelligent Driving prototypes, everything else is bog-standard LEAF on the outside. From the charge port door on the front nose to the rear tailgate and familiar lines, the vehicle is just like a regular LEAF.
Step inside however, and things are noticeably different. Instead of the standard LEAF dashboard and controls found in every production LEAF today, there’s a completely reengineered dashboard. Sure, some elements — like the climate control buttons — are familiar, but everything else has been given a thorough reworking for the purposes of autonomous drive. For a start, the usual Nissan LEAF dashboard has been replaced with a new 12-inch digital display that’s capable of representing all of the necessary data about the car and its surroundings. Two circular areas on either side of the display show drive mode and speed respectively, while the centre of the dashboard appears to display information pertaining to autonomous drive functionality.
Based on the different shots we’ve seen from the interior of the cabin, this central section can be programmed to display different things, including a virtual representation of the car and its lane position as well as a video feed from the front-facing camera mounted on the rear view mirror. In this latter mode, the car identifies other road users with little boxes.
Then there’s the steering wheel. Instead of the existing Nissan LEAF steering wheel, where buttons give access to basic functions such as cruise control, radio and telephone, these million-dollar autonomous LEAFs have a noticeably different wheel, complete with a total of twelve different buttons, arranged in groups of six on either side of the wheel. The arrangement isn’t familiar to us as being from any other NIssan model past or present, so we’d hazard a guess that the new layout has been engineered specifically to interact with the new dashboard.
Above the dash itself, there’s also a head-up display, which Nissan notes helps passengers anticipate any moves being planned by the autonomous drive software. It’s aided by an auditory announcement at important intersections, so that the passengers aren’t caught unaware by the car’s software.
To the side, where the 7-inch navigation unit sits, is a much larger 10-inch centre-display, featuring touch-screen capabilities and what looks like an advanced satellite navigation system. There’s also a pair of animated cartoon eyes — a virtual assistant that reminds us a little of Microsoft’s notorious paperclip ‘assistant’ — which will ask you where you’re going and presumably, help you program the GPS for fully-autonomous operation.
As CNET’s Chris Paukert notes, the new 10-inch display and narrower AC vents looks production-ready, meaning that we could see this larger display used in Japanese-market Nissan LEAFs next year, which Nissan has already said will include a basic 1.0-version of its Intelligent Drive hardware.
“You can program this LEAF’s sat-nav and switch to fully autonomous mode so that the car will drive itself to your chosen destination, even around town,” marvels AutoExpress’ Sean Carson. “Pulling into the busy traffic around Tokyo bay, it’s a surreal feeling at first as Nissan General Manager for Advanced Driver Assist Systems and Strategy, Tetsuya Iijima, hands over full control to the car’s electronic brain.”
For those familiar with Nissan’s previous autonomous drive prototypes, Tetsuya Iijima is the gentleman seen in so much of Nissan’s official press material showing dignitaries and members of the press alike what Nissan’s autonomous drive software is truly capable of. And with good reason. As the General Manager for Advanced Drivers Systems and Strategy, Iijima has been the driving force behind much of Nissan’s autonomous driving program.
Indeed, says CNET, Iijima has been working at Nissan on autonomous driving systems at the Japanese automaker for eighteen years, and was responsible for Nissan’s first intelligent cruise control system — a technology which entered the market around the same time as a similar technology from Mercedes-Benz. With such a lot of his working life invested in the technology, it seems only right that he too gets the glory.
Of the experience behind the wheel — or in this case in the passenger seat — both CNET and Autocar note the surreal feeling of being driven by a car rather than a human. Capable of operating in most situations now, Nissan’s autonomous drive technology has already proven itself capable even with heavy rain or super-bright sunlight. Snow and fog are however a different matter, with Iijima admitting there’s some work to be done there.
Some additional work also needs to be done to Nissan’s on-board algorithms. While both trips were largely uneventful, handling everything from tunnels, traffic jams and busy expressways with aplomb, CNET notes that the self-driving LEAF did struggle in two different situations to identify hazards.
In one instance, a truck traveling at the same speed in a nearby lane during heavy traffic proved too much for the LEAF to detect. Trying to merge behind the truck, Iijima was forced to override the car’s actions with the brake pedal. In a second, it tried to merge in similar circumstances with a Nissan X-Trail. In that instance, the steering wheel was used as a momentary override until the two cars were safely apart.
To be fair to Nissan however, these are exactly the same kind of situations that other autonomous vehicles have shown are extremely challenging, ones in which some autonomous driving software doesn’t even attempt to operate in yet. Even when Nissan’s software is better at dealing with such tough situations Iijima notes, drivers will still be required to pay attention to their car’s actions for some time to come, ensuring they can jump in if anything goes wrong, just as they currently do with cruise control systems.
Yet it’s also fair to say that Nissan has another five years before its planned roll out of a fully-autonomous vehicle. In between now and then, it will work to further improve its autonomous drive algorithms, miniaturise the computer equipment currently taking up the entire load bay of the prototype LEAFs (something Iijima says won’t be a problem) and naturally, reduce the costs associated with producing the vehicle.
Initially, autonomous drive capabilities will be a high-end trim option, but hopes Iijima, Nissan will soon bring autonomous drive capabilities across its future vehicle range. Helped by a move to all-electric vehicles, that rollout should be made easier: electric vehicles are far easier to automate than ones with internal combustion engines.
In the meantime, if you’ve got a LEAF, you’ll just have to do what we do: sit in the garage and pretend that you’re being driven to work. Just don’t try it on the road yet.
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