Japan’s Prime Minister Rides Along In First Autonomous Public Drive

Today Japan held its first public autonomous car drive and included among participants was its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who took turns in vehicles from Honda, Toyota, and Nissan – and Nissan indicates it is particularly bullish on the technology.

In a statement sent us by Nissan – and contrary to a longer timeframe envisioned by others working on similar ambitions – the automaker outlined its intent to press toward a decade-end goal to usher “AD” tech into the mass market.

The experimental Leaf that drives itself was only revealed a few months ago, and is also the first autonomous car granted a license plate in Japan. As such, the Prime Minister did not break the law in being a passive occupant on roads around the National Diet Front Garden, a public park in the center of Tokyo between Japan’s parliament and the Imperial Palace.

In all seriousness, Nissan says the Japanese government’s support is a significant and positive part of the push to get autonomous cars to market, adding the revolutionary technology stands to further Japan’s economic growth.

The event was planned for and supported by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and Japan’s three participating domestic automakers have worked closely with related ministries and government offices.

Of the event, Nissan Vice Chairman Toshiyuki Shiga commented upon the very public support by Japan’s powers that be, and said its technology promises environmental sustainability wrapped with safety.

“With the public road demonstration for the Autonomous Drive held in the presence of the Prime Minister, I believe that a great step has been taken towards the realization of Autonomous Drive,” said Shiga. “Nissan will pursue a safer, more comfortable and environmentally-friendly mobility by further fortifying our cooperative relations with the many government agencies and people involved.”

To keep it on course, Nissan’s prototype Leaf is packed with cameras, laser scanners and radar.

PM_autonomous

These devices, tied to its on-board computer in lieu of a human in control, identify pedestrians, traffic lights, traffic signs and other objects.

The car’s computer makes instant (life or death) decisions and implements them through automatically operated controls to provide acceleration, handling, braking, and more.

Nissan’s Leaf that drives itself was first introduced in August this year in California at the “Nissan 360” product showcase that went into September.

This reveal followed the opening in February this year of a Silicon Valley Autonomous Driving Center.

In October Nissan’s tech was granted top honors at an innovation awards event.

Despite bearish forecasts by others in the field that autonomous driving presents too many challenges on too many fronts, Nissan has set an ambitions target date for 2020.

Further, Nissan’s stated goal is “the technology will be available across the model range within two vehicle generations.”

japans-first-autonomous-road-drive

The push to commercialize cars that can be optioned to drive themselves includes a purpose-built Autonomous Drive proving ground being constructed at Nissan’s Japan-based test facility.

There Nissan intends to subject the cars to every extreme situation its engineers can think of.

This tackles one of several obstacles others pursuing autonomous drive have recently conceded after several years of promoting a green light for the technology.

While autonomous cars have been shown capable of operating under relatively benign driving conditions, conservative voices say accounting for all that can go wrong is another matter.

“The biggest obstacle is the millions of different driving scenarios you have to face,” said Christoph Hagedorn, CEO of Continental Japan in an Automotive News report last month. “There are so many driving scenarios it will probably require years of validation.”

Other core concerns by those now putting on the brakes – and predicting autonomous cars won’t be ready until well past 2020 – are IT limitations, liability concerns, lack of uniform standards and regulations, and other pressing questions.

As indicated in the lower-positioned video, Nissan is mindful of challenges, going in apparently with eyes wide open, and is otherwise following its own direction, just as it has with its bullish advocacy for electric cars.

The Leaf is the global top-selling plug-in car, Nissan is investing billions in EV research and development, and has already shown a willingness to walk past more cautious industry players.

So, mark your calendars. Nissan says by 2020 commercialized autonomous driving will be available. Honda and Toyota are also in on the initiative, and Japan’s government is also very conspicuously on board.