Cars sure are great. They look cool, they go vroooom really loudly, and they can even get us around to different places much faster than just walking. But there are a few drawbacks, too, perhaps the chief of which is that they’re incredibly dangerous! Zipping around at high speeds reduces the amount of time we have to react to dangerous situations and this can turn even small mistakes into giant disasters.

Of course, that’s just a problem with everyone else, right? I mean, I know I’m a great driver–this wouldn’t be an issue without everyone else on the road. Fortunately, Nissan is working on just the thing to help keep me safe: autonomous cars!

Using their Leaf, an all-electric vehicle, as the base for the ambitious experiment, Nissan is aiming to have a customer-ready, self-driving car, called Autonomous Drive, by 2020. Obviously, there’s already stiff competition, with Google and Mercedes-Benz racing to be the first with autonomous wheels on the road, but Nissan’s nowhere near the back of the pack on this one. In fact, they’ve already got an impressive test course set up in the regulation-heavy state of California, where they can try out everything from driverless parking in a supermarket parking lot to collision avoidance.

While the vehicles aren’t ready for prime time yet, based on the experiences of those who’ve test out the cars, seven years to market actually seems…doable! Though self-driving cars have long been the province of science fiction, it seems that all we’re really waiting on now is to perfect the “brain” for the car and to adapt regulations to the new technology. Considering the potential for public disapproval, it may prove easier to make a car that can drive itself–safely–than to convince people to trust autonomous cars. Some Twitter users are already worrying about people who would “leave everything up to the car.”

▼ We’re more worried about people who think their reflexes are faster than a computer’s.


So, where is the technology now? Google has been road-testing their vehicles for a while, and Mercedes-Benz recently just completed a 60-mile course that took them through city traffic, so we may actually be much further down the road than most people realize. And Nissan’s executive vice president Andy Palmer has pointed out that most of the sensory technology and control features already exist–anti-lock brakes, collision detection, and rear-view cameras are already standard on many new cars. The only thing missing is the central brain to tie it all together–basically artificial intelligence smart enough to understand what’s happening around it.

While that may seem a long way off, the cars are performing well in testing. They can deftly avoid mannequins that suddenly pop out into the road, park themselves, and carefully maintain the proper distance between other vehicles. What sets Nissan’s efforts apart from, say, Google’s is that the cars are meant to operate entirely independently. They will be able to get around on their own without connecting to a network–according to Mr. Palmer.

▼ Environmentally friendly and great for lazy people!
Now, if they could just make it look cool…


As we mentioned before, Nissan is testing this new technology on their zero-emissions, electric vehicle, the Leaf. But this is more than a marketing attempt–it seems that the relatively stable and predictable nature of electric motors makes them ideal for autonomous cars. While many may still prefer gas cars for their horsepower, it turns out that the fluctuations caused by engine heat can make things difficult for autonomous vehicles. So if you were planning on turning your 1969 Mustang into the next Knightrider, you might have to think twice.

Regardless of the fuel type, you can consider me interested! Hopefully Nissan will have a few testing models available in Tokyo soon. I’d be happy to take one out for a spin. Come on, Nissan, give me a call!

Sources: Nico Nico Video, Nissan Motor Company, Yahoo! News Japan
Images: Nissan Motor Company

▼If you want to learn more about Nissan’s Autonomous Drive, check out the full interview with Mr. Palmer below.