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CES 2017: Nasa’s helping Nissan make driverless cars

The next Leaf will have self-driving functions, and Nasa is helping. Sort of

Published: 06 Jan 2017

Nissan’s autonomous car drive has gained significant momentum at the CES show in Las Vegas. The Japanese carmaker has put a timeline to its plans, and confirmed the MkII Leaf – due in the next year or two – will get semi-autonomous functionality as standard.

It has also collaborated with Nasa to help develop something called SAM (Seamless Autonomous Mobility) that means proper self-driving vehicles – taxis and vans with no drivers in them at all – won’t be completely stranded when an accident or construction work ahead of them blocks the road.

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The idea is that actual humans will monitor the vehicles’ progress – the head of a fleet of autonomous cabs, for example – and if a car gets confused by a road layout, it’ll pause, send its human an alert, and they’ll use its cameras and location to guide it around obstacles and back on track.

You might ponder the point of a self-driven car if it can’t entirely drive itself. Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn is fairly bullish about the fact that it’s a long time before our road networks will consist purely of driverless cars.

“No matter how much artificial intelligence or algorithms come along, there’ll always be a case where the car gets stuck and needs human intervention,” he says. “In 15 to 20 years maybe we’ll overcome it, but I doubt it. Humans know how to overcome rules but still respect them.”

Such high levels of autonomy are many years off yet, of course, and in the interim, Nissan is being pretty careful about how much of its self-driving software it releases. ‘Propilot 1’, the first level of autonomy in Nissans, launched in Japan last year, and sees the Serena people carrier drive itself within a single lane in motorway traffic. It’s also what we’ll see on the new Leaf, which could look like the Nissan IDS concept, pictured above.

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“We need to make sure customers do not overtrust autonomous cars,” says Nissan engineer Kazuhiro Doi. “When launching Propilot 1 in Japan, we had engineers go to every dealer to educate them, so they could then educate the customers on how to use it,” Doi adds.

Nissan’s very serious about the whole thing. It’s even employed anthropologists to study human behaviour so that cars can be taught how to react around pedestrians, and when to yield to other road users. This includes teaching cars to be assertive, so that other drivers don’t take advantage of dithering driverless cars.

Like it or not, the technology is firmly on its way. Are you pleased companies like Nissan are throwing their all behind it? Or do autonomous cars still give you the heebie-jeebies?

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