Nissan showcases self-driving tech for new minivan

Nissan Motor on Wednesday gave the media a preview of its new auto-driving system that will become the first to be offered by a Japanese automaker when the Serena minivan debuts in the domestic market in late August.

The ProPilot system is designed for highway use in single-lane traffic. It can handle steering, acceleration and braking on its own, even when there is congestion.

“With autonomous driving technologies, we offer comfort and peace of mind,” Executive Vice President Hideyuki Sakamoto said. “We want to propose new value” to society, he added.

A camera attached to the upper part of the windshield allows the system to track the car in front and lane line markers together to maintain appropriate distance from the car ahead. Drivers can choose a speed between 30kph and 100kph, in 5kph increments, and specify a desired distance from the preceding car, such as 30 meters, 45 meters and 60 meters, when the vehicle moves at 100kph. When this reporter tried it on a test course, the ride felt similar to regular driving, with the vehicle stopping smoothly with plenty of room to spare when the car in front stopped.

Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors of the U.S. have offered comparable features in their products, mainly high-end vehicles. Nissan is different in that it employs the system in a minivan — often used by families — to appeal to a broad array of consumers. The new Serena is expected to start at between 2.5 million yen and 3 million yen ($23,932 and $28,719).

The Japanese company plans to apply the technology in its Qashqai sport utility vehicle set to debut in Europe next year, and intends to also introduce the system in the U.S. and China.

Setting ground rules

With the dawn of autonomous driving technology, one of the challenges is to revamp traffic rules. At present, Geneva Convention driving guidelines and various countries’ rules assume that a driver is present in a vehicle. So when an accident occurs, the primary responsibility lies with the driver.

With fully automated driving — which the Japanese government expects to see in the market in 2025 — the automaker likely would be fully responsible. But with partial auto-driving, determining who is responsible is more difficult.

The Geneva Convention is already being re-examined and Japan’s National Police Agency in May announced guidelines for auto-drive testing on public roads. Traffic rules in Japan are being reviewed as well.

When this reporter tried out Nissan’s ProPilot technology, the tricky part was the transition from auto-driving to manual mode. Self-driving mode shuts off when the vehicle is idle for more than three seconds. And a button on the steering wheel or a light touch on the acceleration pedal can reinstate the auto mode.

The driver must keep his or her hands on the steering wheel. If the hands are off for five seconds, an alarm will sound, and in about 10 seconds, the auto-driving mode turns off. The system analyzes the car in front and lane lines together, so if a sharp curve approaches when there is no car ahead, the system shuts off and the driver needs to assume control. The same is true for inclement weather or light shining directly into the camera, preventing it from recognizing lane lines.

Automakers face the daunting challenge of explaining the scope of their autonomous driving systems to customers, with the limits and risks in mind.

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