While showing off prototypes of self-driving Leaf electric cars at a well-staged event in Irvine, Calif., yesterday, Nissan Motor EVP Andy Palmer was challenging not only his competitors to catch it if they can but, perhaps more directly, the regulatory and insurance bureaucrats who might stand in the way of making “autonomous” cars a reality on global highway and byways by the turn of the next decade.
In pledging that his company “will be ready to bring multiple affordable, energy efficient, fully autonomous-driving vehicles to the market by 2020," Palmer made it clear that “most of the technology solutions are in sight,” as Joseph B. White reports in the Wall Street Journal. That’s not the big challenge, Palmer said.
“Aside from reducing the high costs of the new technology to be able to make it viable in Nissan’s low-cost, small hatchbacks, governments and insurance companies must first agree on policies to regulate these vehicles amid doubts, for example, about who is responsible if a self-driving car is involved in an accident,” reportFinancial Times Henry Foy in London and Chris Bryant in Berlin.
There’s no doubt that the technology with be able; the question is when will society be willing, in other words.
“Some mainstream carmakers and suppliers such as Mercedes-Benz and Continental have been developing automated technologies for years, but Google shocked many car companies into action in 2010 when it unveiled technology that later enabled a nearly-blind man to drive around in its test vehicle,” Foy and Bryant write. In Mashable, Todd Wasserman points out that Audi and Toyota have themselves displayed driverless car prototypes.
Amir Efrati reported on JessicaLessin.com last week that Google, “which has been working on software to help major automakers build self-driving cars, also is quietly going around them by designing and developing a full-fledged self-driving car” on its own. Sources tell Efrati this comes after “talks with big car brands about incorporating its technology into their vehicles failed to yield a partnership.”
Nissan has a track record of delivering on its promises, CEO Carlos Ghosn, who was unable to attend the presentation at the last moment for unspecified business reason, points out in a press release. “In 2007 I pledged that -- by 2010 -- Nissan would mass market a zero-emission vehicle,” Ghosn crows. “Today, the Nissan Leaf is the best-selling electric vehicle in history.”
Meanwhile, in a “Nissan 360” video interview back at the test track in California, Palmer says, “I think we’ve shocked the world again; it’s a little like Groundhog Day in 2008 when we told the world that we were going to be the leaders in zero emissions.”
Palmer also sets a very ambitious goal for Autonomous Driving -- “zero fatalities.” He says the company is working with researchers at 10 universities -- including Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Oxford and the University of Tokyo -- in developing “the brains” of the system. Nissan also has established an office in Silicon Valley to “access the innovative technology that inevitably comes out of the Valley.” Suppliers, too, “will obviously be there,” but the company has not announced any yet.
Interspersed through the interview, driverless Nissans can be seen backing into a parking spot, pulling up at a stop sign to pick up a chap with armfuls of grocery bags, as well as swerving just the right degree to avoid a “pedestrian” (a dummy, notably).
“Six million crashes in the U.S. per year cost $160 billion and rank as the top reason of death for 4- to 34-year olds,” according to Nissan. “And, 93% of accidents in the U.S. are due to human error, typically due to inattention.”
Nissan also announced that it is developing “a dedicated autonomous vehicle testing facility -- essentially a small scale faux city – [that’s] due to be completed next year in Japan,” reportsWired’s Damon Lavrinc.
Another video in the Nissan Newsroom puts the viewer behind the front window of the vehicle as it wends its way on the test track and informs us that the company will use the new proving ground to further develop the technology that “uses laser scanners, round-view monitor cameras as well as advanced-intelligence and actuators to ease traffic and allow multitasking while commuting.”
Indeed, “U.S. drivers average 48 minutes per day on the road -- hundreds of hours a year that could be used more productively,” the press release tells us. So we’ll soon be able to pretend to be busy writing marketing briefs while playing videogames or watching basketball not only at work but also on the way to it, right?