Nissan launched its ProPilot auto drive system as a step toward autonomous vehicles, and warned that it must be used properly after a fatal crash in May of a Tesla Model S using its Autopilot system.

Nissan’s ProPilot system enables single-lane semiautonomous driving in highway conditions. It follows the car ahead, tracks lane markers and judges curves, the company said. ProPilot keeps a safe distance from cars ahead by modulating speed, and can apply brakes to bring the car to a complete stop when necessary. It also self-steers the car to keep the vehicle centered in the lane and traveling smoothly around curves.

ProPilot will at first be installed in a redesigned Serena family van that will go in sale in Japan in late August. It will be offered in the Qashqai crossover in Europe next year. Vehicles in the U.S. and China will get the technology later, but the automaker didn’t release a timeline for those introductions.

Nissan executives stressed that automakers must take the initiative in warning drivers about the limitations of self-driving technology. The safety of semiautonomous, and eventually fully autonomous vehicles, has come under heavy scrutiny following government investigations into the fatal May crash of a Tesla Model S in the U.S.

ProPilot allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel, but it doesn’t tolerate doing so. A torque sensor on the steering column senses whether a hand is at helm. If not, a warning light comes on, which is followed by the chiming of a warning beeper of the driver still hasn’t taken hold of the wheel. If there is no grip for several seconds, the self-driving function disengages.

“We need to send out much stronger warnings as our technology becomes more advanced,” Executive Vice President Hideyuki Sakamoto said at a news conference at Nissan’s global headquarters. “Improving safety and functionality have to come as a set.”

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ProPilot is the first step of a three-stage ramp up to urban autonomous driving in 2020. CEO Carlos Ghosn has been describing Nissan as a technology innovator with its plug-in electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

Nissan plans to build upon ProPILOT with a more advanced system due around 2018 that will allow automated driving across multiple lanes. The self-driving car rollout will culminate in a sophisticated autonomous system that will allow “intersection autonomy” by around 2020. That function will allow cars to navigate city intersections and urban traffic without driver intervention, the automaker says.

Nissan, together with its French alliance partner Renault, plans to launch more than 10 vehicles with autonomous driving technology in the next four years. One of the partners will be Mobileye, which provides a camera system using technology from sensor supplier Mobileye in the ProPilot system.

Automotive News