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Nissan previews the new Leaf with an autonomous EV

Watch out Tesla, Nissan wants a slice of the driverless car pie and the IDS Concept proves it

Nissan has decided to crash Tesla’s autonomous EV party with this stake-in-the-ground moment for mass-market driverless cars: the IDS Concept.

Shown at the Tokyo motor show, this four-seat pure-electric hatchback gives a significant wink to the next generation Leaf’s design. But, more than that, it’s a serious statement of intent from Nissan that the future of driving involves ditching the steering wheel while a bunch of coding wiggles you  – safely – through traffic and on to your destination.

The IDS concept has two driving modes: manual driving (the traditional way, pushing pedals to stop and go, turning the steering to change direction, that kind of thing), or ‘piloted’ mode, where on-board artificial intelligence takes over the driving duties so you can kick back, have a chat, check Whatsapp or watch TV.

Flipping between the two is just a matter of flicking a switch. And when it swaps from manual control to letting the robots take over, the steering wheel recedes into the dash and is replaced by a large flat TV screen.

But where we’ve seen autonomous driving features before, Nissan’s system goes a bit further by learning how you drive. 

So if you’re bored of driving and want to pack it in, the AI will take over and mimic your braking, accelerating and cornering technique even when you’ve rescinded control. So, if you drive like you’re on fire, your AI will do the same.

Nissan says the AI is programmed to “communicate like an attentive partner.” That means it’ll holler if there’s traffic ahead, warn you of possible danger, as well as tell you what’s in your diary and remind you to brush your teeth before you go to bed. We may’ve made that last bit up. 

The scary thing is you can’t turn it off. Ever. The car’s sensors constantly scan conditions and offer assistance even when you’re in manual control. And, in the event of danger, the Nissan IDS Concept will take evasive action for you.  

Ghosn said the objective of this autonomy is not to reduce the need for the driver, but to empower them. He explains that if you like driving, you never have the need or desire to hand over control. But if you’re bored or tired, you simply switch modes to make life more pleasant, efficient and safer.

Indeed, the idea for a fully autonomous Nissan stretches back to 2013, when Ghosn stated there’d be a fully autonomous car in its model range by the end of the decade. The plan is to roll out Leafs in Japan, the US and Europe in 2016 with Stage One autonomous driving.

Stage One means that cars can be autonomous within a single lane of a highway. Stage Two maintains autonomy on the highway, but is more advanced to allow for lane changes and to merge with traffic. Stage Three – the aim for 2020 – is to be fully autonomous within a city environment.

Compared to the current Leaf, the IDS concept has a lowered roofline to improve aerodynamics, a carbon fibre body to save weight and features a 60kWh battery pack (twice as much as the updated Leaf) in order to improve range. By how much? They won’t say. 

It’s a good-looking car, and the exterior strongly hints at the next gen Leaf. However elements like the silver side body line – which is actually an LED that Nissan calls the Intention Indicator – probably won’t make it through to production.

That’s there so when pedestrians or cyclists are near the car, the strip illuminates red to let them know the car knows they’re there. Got it? Good. Meanwhile, a display shows messages such as “after you” to pedestrians if the car is feeling polite. We’re sure this will be hacked to provide an appropriate response or LED gesture to signal that you don’t appreciate being cut up. 

Nissan is currently testing autonomous cars on public roads in Japan and will roll out the self-driving Leafs there first. Primarily because Japanese legislation allows them to do so. In Europe and America, to ever get to Stage Three of autonomy – driving around cities and without the driver’s hands on the wheel – the rulebook needs to be rewritten and people need to be convinced that it’s safe. This all takes time.

Even so, with both Mercedes and Nissan now taking the driverless fight to Tesla and its recently released Autopilot, you could be driven to the shops by a piece of software sooner than you think. Is that a scary thought?


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