US Could Get Nissan’s First Production Autonomous Cars In 2020

Nissan Motors says its first autonomous drive car projected to be on sale in 2020 may be launched initially in the U.S.

In August at its Nissan 360 event, the Japanese automaker announced ambitious plans to globally launch a first-generation vehicle, with intent to make the technology available in all its cars – gas and electrified – within two model generations.

This we were told at the Detroit Auto Show this week by Andy Christensen, senior manager at Nissan Technical Center North America, who explained cooperation is being given by California DMV regulators which leads Nissan to suggest the U.S. intro.

“I can’t say for sure but the U.S. is a key market right now that we’re concentrating on,” said Christensen. “There’s a lot of activity going on right now, with regard to regulation. California is very active with their regulations for testing for autonomous vehicles, and we’re very involved in that discussion. So there’s a lot going on in the U.S. right now.”

As for vehicles’ capabilities, the first wave is expected to have full autonomous drive for highway use only, and suburban and urban navigation will not likely be offered at that juncture.

In pointed terms, this means futurist notions of a blind person being enabled to drive, or a person being able to drive intoxicated and not be declared drunk at the wheel are not projected scenarios.

“We’re not talking driverless cars in 2020. That’s more the ultimate goal,” said Nissan’s Brian Brockman, Corporate Communications senior manager who added to the Detroit interview alongside Christensen. “In 2020 we’re talking more autonomous drive capability. It’s going to be an evolutionary process and 2020 will be the first year to truly see some of these capabilities start to be introduced in the vehicle.”

Already Google has demonstrated a Prius that has driven a legally blind person around doing errands, and that appears theoretically within realm of Nissan’s tech too.

In the second week of November, Japan’s Prime Minister trusted his well being to the technology when he took a demonstration ride. Later that month, Nissan did an autonomous highway drive as well.

These followed Nissan’s technology having won the Grand Prix in the CEATEC Innovation Awards early in October.

That said, while myriad capabilities have been demonstrated, for Nissan’s first generation, a production autonomous drive car would likely alert the driver when things are clear to switch into autonomous mode. A potential scenario would be once a driver enters a highway, the car could take over.

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This would be a level of technology beyond “intelligent cruise control,” said Brockman. Nissan and other automakers have already demonstrated a number of safety technologies. For example, said Brockman, Infinitis have offered Distance Control Assist which can bring the car to a full stop.

Christensen elaborated also that as Nissan’s autonomous cars are being thoroughly tested now, the precise role the driver will need to play is unclear.

“The driver responsibility issue is still an open question,” he said. “Exactly what the capability will be and what the role of the driver is. But the system will have that capability, in those different situations.”

Nissan of course is not the only manufacturer pushing for autonomous drive, but it is notably bullish, just as it has been for all-electric vehicles.

However in October also, a pessimistic note was heard for autonomous driving’s future at the ITS World Congress by developers citing numerous technological difficulties.

Objections include lack of existing regulations, liability concerns, connectivity issues, and more. These, say some in the industry, could make autonomous drive a quantum-leap more difficult when offering it for public sale compared to demonstrating carefully staged drives with solo vehicles.

But Nissan says it is undaunted, and its 2020 vision is on course, it says.

Nissan’s stated goal is to deliver technology that can safely control a car in all situations to allow for more convenience and reduced accidents. Presently, Nissan says, six million accidents happen on American roads annually, with 93 percent of accidents due to driver error.

Citing these stats, Nissan suggests its autonomous technology stands to curtail this record in due time.

Although Nissan intends to ultimately provide autonomous capabilities across its lineup, Christensen clarified why the Leaf is the present development vehicle.

“The key with Leaf is Leaf is already fully electric, meaning all the actuators, the brakes the steering are already electrically operated so we can easily tap into that,” he said. “So it’s a perfect platform to prototype this in, but the technology is not limited to EVs.”

And, so far, the concept of having ones’ automobile drive itself is being pitched purely for its benefits, which stand to be many.

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Autonomous drive promises to eventually allow people who cannot drive safely – or at all – to do so. It also stands to radically reduce accidents as one of the requirements of the technology is that the car cannot be seen as a safety liability.

This stands to potentially save billions of dollars, reduce accidents, and thus prevent injuries and save lives.

What’s not to like about saving lives, money, and improving convenience, right?

But, we asked, can we pose a “crazy question?”

“I love crazy questions,” Brockman said smiling in return.

OK. Autonomous drive, we asked, where is all going? Assuming this scenario comes true a decade or two or more from now, could a dollar value or a “life cost” value be documented to show cars that drive themselves are better than not?

Could this in turn one day lead to an initiative to restrict personal driving privileges because autonomous cars prove far safer than human drivers?

What if an argument could one day be made that humans should no longer be permitted to drive their cars because the human safety record is much worse and associated costs are much higher than computers at the wheel?

Could autonomous driving radically reduce traffic accidents in coming years?

Could autonomous driving radically reduce traffic accidents in coming years?

At that, Nissan’s reps diverted back to a purely positive note.

Autonomous drive offers increased mobility, it was said, especially as the population continues to age. Also, in traffic congestion, car-to-car communication one day could improve traffic flow. And there are many other positives besides.

But, we pressed, while benefits are clear, could there be unintended consequences? We cited a loosely parallel precedent set already by the U.S. military which has increased reliance upon unmanned aircraft instead of risking highly trained pilots for certain deployments.

When technology can be demonstrated to save lives, we noted, that has been shown to get policymakers’ attention.

Christensen conceded such theories and others besides have been floated.

“I think there are multiple hypotheticals that you could reach out to and come up with things,” he said. “But we’re not in a position at this point to be able to look at one of those and say ‘one’s going to happen,’ or ‘the other’s going to happen.’

“Many things like that have been discussed, but again they are all hypotheticals at this point. We’re trying to get the systems in to production by 2020 and talk about this step by step approach and move this forward, and where they go in 20 or 30 years after that, we’ll have to see.”