Nissan maps out its route to autonomy

Nissan Piloted Drive Prototype Vehicle

On Thursday Nissan conducted its first self-driving car tests on highways and on inner city roads with the ultimate aim of taking what are still very much prototype technologies and making them standard features by 2020.

Like Toyota's Highway Teammate concept and Tesla's recently rolled-out Autopilot feature, the technology being tested by a vehicle based on Nissan's plug-in electric Leaf is a form of piloted driving that can take over in specific circumstances.

However, unlike the other systems, Nissan's ‘Piloted Drive' is being developed and demonstrated simultaneously in much more complex urban areas as well as on clearly delineated, predominantly straight and predictable highways.

To manage this, the car has a laser scanner that can measure distances in three dimensions and within millimeters so that it understands where it is in relation not just to other vehicles, but to road infrastructure and pedestrians, too. This scanner works in conjunction with an eight-way, 360-degree camera that enables the car's systems or the driver to make the quickest and clearest decisions regarding the route through an intersection or a sharp bend, for example.

Much of this technology is still in its infancy so Nissan's initial aim is to roll out Piloted Drive 1.0 -- a system that can autonomously navigate congested highway conditions, to production models in Japan by the end of 2016. By 2018, the system will be able to navigate lane changes and by 2020, able to negotiate urban environments and intersections, too.

A program for cleaner and safer motoring

But Piloted Drive is in itself simply one large element of a much bigger autonomous driving system called Nissan Intelligent Drive that will work in concert with the driver to take the strain, cut accidents and even drive in the same way as the owner.

"We at Nissan are setting clear goals and preparing for the implementation of piloted drive," said senior vice president of Nissan, Takao Asami. "The prototype that we're introducing here today is proof of how close we are towards the realization of this goal. Nissan aspires for a safe and trouble-free motoring future, and we plan on leading the industry in the implementation of piloted drive."

Nissan has chosen a Leaf rather than a crossover or one of its luxury Infiniti models because it believes zero-emission and zero-fatality driving are linked and that battery powered cars will be much more widespread at the turn of the decade. "By the time Nissan Intelligent Driving technology is available on production cars, EVs will be able to go great distances on a single charge," said Design Director Mitsunori Morita.