Nissan Launches Intelligent Vehicle Towing at Oppama Factory — Based On Autonomous Nissan LEAF

If you’ve visited a large automotive production facility any time in the last fifteen years or so, the chances are you will have seen some form of robotic cart carrying parts, equipment or vehicles from one part of a factory to another. Known for the little happy tunes they play as they follow carefully-painted magnetic routes on the factory floor (to warn others of their presence), these little robotic assistants have revolutionized the automotive production line and have helped everyone from Toyota to Tesla improve productivity, slash costs and increase production line flexibility.

Nissan's LEAF-based autonomous car transporter.

Nissan’s LEAF-based autonomous car transporter.

Now, Nissan is taking the idea of little autonomous robotic assistants one step further by turning autonomous Nissan LEAF electric cars into robotic factory assistants that can tow as many as three finished vehicles from one part of its Oppama production facility to another without human input. It even has a name: the Nissan Intelligent Vehicle Towing system (IVT).

As with any large automotive production facility, there’s always some degree of logistics involved in moving finished vehicles from the end of the production line to the massive parking lots where they will await transportation to dealerships or customers. Traditionally, that process has been accomplished by employing drivers to physically drive the car from one location to another, or by loading a number of vehicles onto a trailer or small transporter.

The IVT can take up to three cars at a time.

The IVT can take up to three cars at a time.

The former requires staff as well as cars be shuttled back and forward between the different locations. The latter requires staff to both load and unload vehicles at both ends as well as staff to drive the transporter. Nissan’s solution eliminates the need to shuttle staff from one location to the other by attaching an autonomous Nissan LEAF to a specially-designed car trolley train that can transport three cars at a time around the facility.

The process is simple: workers load three brand-new cars onto the trolley train, and one complete, the autonomous Nissan LEAF gives a short burst on its horn to warn those around that it is about to leave. Then, without a driver, the car heads off to its destination, stopping for other traffic and giving appropriate signals as required.

Upon arrival, another worker unloads the trolley train and, with a simple button press, sends it back to pick up more cars. Since the Nissan LEAF is 100% electric, the IVT system can be used both inside and outside without worrying about the need for exhaust ventilation.

The IVT trains are connected to a central computer system.

The IVT trains are connected to a central computer system.

As the video above shows, the LEAFs used for the IVT system are modified to include a special heavy-duty tow hitch fitted to their underside and the necessary sensors and hardware needed to give them autonomous driving capabilities. Interestingly, while some sensors are visible, we note that the cars do not appear to have the larger touch-screen display and modified steering wheel that we saw in the Nissan LEAF Autonomous Drive prototype we rode in back in January.  Instead, we note what looks like sensors hidden in the apertures usually used for the front fog lights, as well as sensors embedded into a light bar on the car’s roof.

That, says Nissan, is because the IVT system uses a series of cameras and laser scanners to detect lane markings and hazards, which it then cross-references with high-resolution mapping data for the plant itself. And if that sounds like a familiar system it’s because Tesla uses a similar system to allow its Autopilot-equipped Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X electric cars interact with the world, cross-referencing data from the cameras and other sensors to locate the car in the real world.

Importantly however, the cars used for IVT also make use of a vehicle-to-infrastructure system to help IVT vehicles better react to the world around them without needing huge amounts of on-board processing technology. This not only helps teach the cars new routes, but helps decide who goes first at intersections involving two IVT cars. At the same time, Nissan’s central computer can monitor state of charge of the IVT vehicles, as well as stop all vehicles as necessary in an emergency.

This LEAF is towing three cars -- but we wouldn't recommend it at home!

This LEAF is towing three cars — but we wouldn’t recommend it at home!

Of course, this means Nissan’s IVT system only works in the confines of the Oppama production facility, but could easily be replicated at other Nissan plants around the world and gives Nissan a great test bed to test its latest autonomous vehicle technology.

As for the towing? Nissan officially doesn’t endorse towing anything with the Nissan LEAF, but as the video shows, the car’s torquey electric motor has no trouble pulling the specially-designed three-car train along, even though it’s obvious from the video that the IVT LEAFs are being pushed far harder than they might in the real world.

We’d just not recommend you try to replicate it in the real world, as we’re not sure Nissan would fix your LEAF if you broke it trying to replicate this impressive feat outside of a Nissan production facility.

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