Ever since we heard that Japanese automaker Nissan was using the Nissan LEAF — its first mass-produced electric car — as the test platform for its upcoming autonomous vehicle technology, we’ve been particularly excited to see just how capable its prototype autonomous vehicle is.
Last week — more than three years after Nissan demonstrated its autonomous vehicle technology in the form of a self-parking Nissan LEAF at the CEATAC 2012 show in Chiba, Japan and nearly three years after the Renault-Nissan Alliance opened up a brand-new Silicon Valley research center to pursue autonomous driving and connected cars — we got the chance to experience Nissan’s hard work in the form of its latest Intelligent Driving autonomous Nissan LEAF.
It was, simply put, a promising and believable (if not yet production ready) vision of the near future. A future where a car not only takes over the boring mundanity of the morning commute but also communicates with other connected autonomous drive vehicles to reduce congestion, improve commute times, and eliminate the hunt for a parking space.
After a morning presentation from Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn (a live-blog of which you can find here) in which we were told Renault-Nissan intends to introduce ten different vehicles within the next four years with some degree of autonomous drive technology, it was time to head out onto the roads of Silicon Valley in one of Nissan’s fully-autonomous LEAFs.
Behind the wheel was Tetsuya Iijima, General Manager of Nissan’s ADAS and Autonomous Driving Engineering Department. Considered by his colleagues at Renault-Nissan to be the ‘father of autonomous drive’ at the alliance, Iijima-san — as everyone there called him — spent some time explaining the features of Nissan’s latest Intelligent Driving prototype Nissan LEAF to us.
The car itself looks like any other Nissan LEAF from afar. But get closer, and you’ll notice a series of radar and sonar sensors embedded a foot or so from the ground in the front and rear bumpers and along each side of the LEAF. Higher up at waist-height, a complement of four high-resolution around-view cameras — higher resolution than the around-view 360˚ monitor system found as an option on production Nissan LEAFs today — are supplemented by high-resolution cameras mounted just beneath the rear spoiler, behind the front mirror, and on the vehicle roof.
In total, there are eight high-resolution cameras, which provide a constant video feed to the bank of computers currently situated in the load bay area of the prototype LEAF.
As Iijima-san explained, the non-visual sensors allowed the LEAF to see a long way into the distance in every direction, making it possible for the car to detect objects as far away as possible. The two circles of cameras allowed the car’s autonomous drive system to further refine its view of the world, using image recognition technology to correctly identify the objects and hazards and then act accordingly.
If you’re wondering why it was Iijima-san behind the wheel and not us, it was, we were told, a matter of insurance. While Nissan has other drivers that it uses for internal testing, Tetsuya Iijima is the only person in the Renault-Nissan alliance who is allowed to take members of the public on the highway in Nissan’s autonomous prototypes. In fact, you may recognise his face as the gentleman who has previously demonstrated Nissan’s autonomous driving technology to Shinzo Abe.
Onto the inside. While it’s still a prototype, Nissan’s latest Intelligent Drive LEAF is furnished with the usual five-seat arrangement you’d find in any production LEAF. Sitting in the rear however, we were aware of the large bank of computers whirring away in the trunk and producing not an inconsequential amount of heat in the process.
Nissan says any production vehicles will of course have their autonomous drive technology miniaturised so that they can be hidden out of sight. But for a working prototype, it makes sense for Nissan to keep the bank of computers easily-accessible for now.
While we’re on the subject, we should probably talk of price. While previous generation autonomous vehicles we’ve seen have price tags that are measured into the millions, we were pleased to hear that Nissan’s current autonomous drive LEAFs have cost the automaker about 100 times the cost of the production car on which they are based. That figure translates to a price tag of about $300,000. That might seem like an inordinate amount of money, but it’s worth noting that most pre-production prototypes today — regardless of the technology — have price tags containing six digits.
When it reaches production, Nissan says it knows that customers are (on general) willing to spend up to $5,000 more for autonomous drive technology over a non self-driving car, but is not willing yet to set a target price. Given Carlos Ghosn’s insistence that Renault-Nissan’s autonomous drive technology will be a feature that will be accessible to all rather than a premium feature on high-end models, we’re hoping the cost to add autonomous drive will be as small as possible for end users.
Easing the white prototype out onto the roads of Sunnyvale California in manual-drive mode, Iijima-san expertly brought up Nissan’s autonomous drive assistant — an animated pair of eyes with accompanying eyebrows — to activate the pre-stored “Round Trip US 101” route. Designed to give us an idea of what Nissan’s autonomous drive technology is currently capable of, taking in both surface streets as well as short freeway stints on both the California State Route 237 and U.S. Route 101.
With the route programmed, the Iijima-san gently released his grip on the wheel, allowing the LEAF full autonomy, his hands hovering a few inches away from the wheel ready to take control if required. Despite the high level of caution however, the LEAF seemed to be doing just fine on its own for the majority of the trip.
With a larger touch-screen interface than the standard LEAF and an all-new steering wheel and digital dashboard, the autonomous LEAF gave a continuous stream of feedback to passengers and driver throughout the trip. As it approached every junction or lane change, the car calmed announced its intention in a clear voice, simultaneously displaying its intentions on multiple screens within the car as well as a head-up display located in front of the steering wheel. Identifying hazards ahead as well as the status of traffic lights, there was no point where we were uneasy as to what the car was going to do next.
However, the drive wasn’t without its issues. While the LEAF calmed handled a few right-on-red intersections, the car was noticeably uncomfortable taking the curved on-ramp onto State Route 237. While it stayed within its lane, the steering was jerky rather than smooth, as if it was somehow unsure of the road ahead.
Once it had cleared the curve however, it proceeded more than happily, merging with traffic, keeping a safe distance, and managing holding its own in the lunchtime traffic. Looking around us, there was little reaction from other drivers which suggested that the presence of an autonomous car was unsettling or worrying, although this could have been the location. After all, Nissan, Google and Tesla all test autonomous vehicles in the area.
The next incident occurred as we were on a surface street, readying for a right-hand turn. With agressive drivers in the farmost lane, our autonomous car was struggling to find a gap in the traffic to merge right. While a gap did eventually present itself, our car decided at the last minute that it did not have enough time to safely complete the move, forcing Iijima-san to briefly take control as the car aborted its planned move.
The rest of the trip was unbelievably smooth, with the autonomous LEAF handling merging on and merging off U.S. 101 with ease.
The only other hiccup? Approaching the Renault-Nissan Silicon Valley research center, a local police car parked at a 45-degree angle to the curb caused our autonomous LEAF to brake hard before being gently encouraged to change lanes and safely pass the police car.
We should note however that the hiccups we witnessed on our trip were comparable to some of the same kind of mistakes we’ve seen Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X cars make with their autopilot ‘beta’ software engaged.
While we’d put both autonomous drive systems at a similar level of competence, it’s worth noting Nissan’s attitude to autonomous drive rollout is far more cautious to Tesla. Rather than release autonomous drive functionality as a beta software to the public, Nissan is clear that it wants to release fully-fledged, fully-capable software and hardware.
The road map to that rollout is fairly simple too: later this year, Nissan will roll out LEAFs in Japan capable of single-lane autonomous driving. In 2018, it will offer multi-lane autonomous driving. By 2020 it promises, it will have a fully-autonomous car capable of tackling city intersections, freeways, and everyday driving.
Like Tesla too, Nissan plans to offer over-the-air updates to upgrade vehicle functionality with time, while the vehicles themselves will learn the driving behaviors and styles of their owners to make them feel more at ease when handing over control the car.
From what we’ve experienced, Nissan’s autonomous drive prototypes are already extremely impressive. Given the pace of development in the hardware and software world — not to mention the electric car world — we can only presume that the final version as planned for 2020 launch, will help pave the way to a future where driving a car is a very different, and much safer, experience for all.
We can’t wait.
[Nissan provided airfare, lodging and meals to enable us to bring you this first-ride report]
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