Will Nissan Piloted Drive Mode Improve Driving?

Tetsuya Iijima, Nissan's general manager of autonomous driving testing Nissan Piloted Drive mode on Japanese streets.

Tetsuya Iijima, Nissan’s general manager of autonomous driving testing Nissan Piloted Drive mode on Japanese streets.

Nissan Piloted Drive mode has begun testing in a Leaf-based autonomous car prototype on Japanese inner city roads and highways.

“Piloted Drive” mode 1.0 is part of Nissan’s Intelligent Driving System. The mode’s first version, which Nissan wants to add to production models by the end of 2016, enables a car to drive autonomously in heavy traffic on the highway. The additional Piloted Drive hardware easily integrates into Nissan’s full range of vehicles by design. The company hopes to roll out the ability to change lanes by 2018, as well as the power to navigate city roads and intersections without human input by 2020.

It’s easy to see the promise such vehicles have for greatly decreasing accident rates and traffic congestion, not to mention for restoring autonomy to the world’s elderly and infirm.

Nissan Piloted Drive Rollout

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said that Japan would be the first market to receive Piloted Drive in production cars, followed by China, Europe and then the U.S., in that order. We’re hoping the regulatory regimes of various U.S. states will permit the operation of autonomous vehicles by that time.

Not coincidently, Nissan’s market rollout for Piloted Drive closely mirrors the demographics for the world’s elderly. Japan has the oldest population, China next oldest, Europe next oldest and the U.S. is the youngest.

Technology Behind Nissan Piloted Drive

Camera and sensor positions on Nissan Leaf prototype testing Nissan Piloted Drive mode.

Camera and sensor positions on Nissan Leaf prototype testing Nissan Piloted Drive mode.

Nissan created a high-spec laser scanner that uses 3D measurement to determine the vehicle’s distance from objects in the environment. It designed an eight-way camera with a 360-degree view of its surroundings to help the system make a decision when crossing intersections.

The laser scanner, one of two innovative technologies developed by Nissan, keeps track of the car’s surroundings by creating a 3-D map of its environment in real time.

The Leaf’ also has a complex network of cutting-edge cameras, sonar hardware and lidar sensors (remote-sensing technology which uses lasers and radars to measure distances) that have been miniaturized and innocuously mounted to its bodywork.

Groundbreaking pre-production flash lidar sensors from Santa Barbara’s Advanced Scientific Concepts Inc. that are exponentially smaller than rooftop sensors (seen on other autonomous vehicles) and contain no moving parts. In all, this car has no fewer than a dozen cameras, four lidar scanners and five radar sensors attached to its panels.

The driver monitors a trio of screens, including a 10-inch center-stack display and a 12-inch screen in place of traditional analogue gauges, a third, temporary-mounted tablet screen mounted just ahead of the round gear selector and a head-up display.

Nissan Piloted Drive Shortcomings

Nissan Piloted Drive Mode Shortcomings

Nissan Piloted Drive Mode Has Trouble Seeing In Fog, In Snow and Cars Traveling Nearby At Similar Speeds

The latest prototypes actually require the person behind the wheel to concentrate more, not less because a drive of any length and complexity almost always carries with it the specter of an occasional flub or near miss.

What’s more, a nearby vehicle whose speed closely matches that of the prototype car is hard for the sensors to determine relative speed in such scenarios.

Nissan Piloted Drive works well in fair weather, but fog and snow are more difficult for it to manage. The car’s exterior sensors may need to be heated and self-cleaning in order to work in inclement weather, or the technology may simply shut off when sensors get dirty or packed with snow.

The Future Of Manual Driving

Tetsuya Iijima, Nissan’s general manager of its advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous engineering department has been working self-driving technology at Nissan for a remarkable 18 years.

When asked about the future of manual driving, Iijima pointed to the continued presence of motorcycles in a world where four-wheeled cars are infinitely less dangerous. He suggested that “(driving) will become kind of a sport,” in other words, a source of entertainment. In his mind, the situation is similar to people that enjoy horseback riding even though the sun has long since set on using equines as primary transportation.

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