Whether you are a fan of autonomous vehicles (AVs) or not – and California is certainly looking very hard at how such systems perform in the real world – automakers are keeping their foot on the gas research and development wise where this technology is concerned.
The Renault-Nissan Alliance, for one, is planning to launch more than 10 vehicles with autonomous drive technology over the next four years in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China, installing said systems on “mainstream, mass-market cars at affordable prices,” in the words of Carlos Ghosn (at right), chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan
He added that the OEM is also planning to launch “a suite” of new connectivity applications to make it easier for people to stay connected to work, entertainment and social networks while in their vehicles.
[FYI, back in 2014, France’s Renault and Japan’s Nissan "converged" the engineering organizations of their respective companies so they could work together as one team to reduce duplication in the development of next-generation technologies. The technology Renault and Nissan engineers develop together is then available for each company and all brands to use where it makes sense for consumers.]
Renault-Nissan is also adding an extra twist to its self-piloting vehicle push by marrying that technology with electric propulsion – an example of which Nissan showed off this week at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), dubbed the Nissan IDS Concept.
Nissan Intelligent Driving powers the IDS Concept (seen below at right) and represents the OEM’s concept of autonomous drive technology and represents what the company believes next-generation vehicles should be.
"Nissan Intelligent Driving improves a driver's ability to see, think and react. It compensates for human error, which causes more than 90% of all car accidents. As a result, time spent behind the wheel is safer, cleaner, more efficient and more fun," Ghosn noted during a press conference at the show.
“Some have compared a future with autonomous drive to living in a world of conveyer belts that simply ferry people from point A to B, but the Nissan IDS Concept promises a very different vision of tomorrow,” he added. “Even when the driver selects ‘Piloted Drive’ and turns over driving to the vehicle, the car's performance — from accelerating to braking to cornering — imitates the driver's own style and preferences.”
In “Manual Drive” mode, even though the driver has control, the Nissan IDS Concept continues to provide assistance – continually monitoring conditions and providing assistance In the event of imminent danger.
In addition to learning, the Nissan IDS Concept's artificial intelligence (AI) communicates like an “attentive partner,” in the OEM’s words, from information concerning traffic conditions to tracking the driver's schedule to personal interests.
"We are deeply committed to the twin goals of 'zero emissions and zero fatalities,'" Ghosn pointed out. "That's why we are developing autonomous driving and connectivity for mass-market, mainstream vehicles on three continents."
He added that Safety and efficiency of vehicles across the Renault-Nissan Alliance have increased dramatically in recent years due in part to the advent of more advanced safety technologies.
For instance, fatal and serious injuries in Nissan vehicles in Japan decreased 61% in 20 years while fatal and serious injuries in Renault vehicles in France decreased 80% in 15 years.
Ghosn noted that 2016 will mark the debut of Renault-Nissan vehicles with "single-lane control," a feature that allows cars to drive autonomously on highways, including in heavy, stop-and-go traffic. Then in 2018, the two OEMs will launch vehicles with "multiple-lane control," which can autonomously negotiate hazards and change lanes during highway driving.
Finally, by 2020, the automakers plan to launch "intersection autonomy," which can navigate city intersections and heavy urban traffic without driver intervention.
Yet Ghosn stressed that all of those autonomous drive technologies will “be available at the option of the driver.”
"Nissan's forthcoming technologies will revolutionize the relationship between car and driver, and future mobility," he noted.
“For autonomous drive to become reality, as a society we have to consider not only communication between car and driver but also between cars and people,” added Mitsunori Morita, Nissan’s design director. “For autonomous drive to be widely accepted, people need to fully trust the technology.”
To that end, various exterior lights and displays convey to pedestrians and others the car's awareness of its surroundings and signals its intentions. The car's side body line, for example, is actually an LED [light emitting diode] that Nissan calls the “Intention Indicator.”
When pedestrians or cyclists are nearby, the strip shines white, signaling that the car is aware of them, Morita noted.
Another electronic display, which faces outside from the instrument panel, can flash messages such as "After you" to pedestrians, he said; a more “natural, harmonious system of communication” that signals a new future with cars.
Morita also pointed out that such “self-driving” features should dovetail with far greater range capability for electric vehicle [EV] propulsion systems, which is why Nissan merged the two on the IDS Concept platform.
“By the time Nissan Intelligent Driving technology is available on production cars, EVs will be able to go great distances on a single charge,” he explained. “Getting to this point will, of course, require the further evolution of batteries, but aerodynamic performance is also very important."
So here are a few items to that end:
- The IDS Concept is made from a carbon fiber body constrained to 1,380 mm, sharply minimizing aerodynamic drag. The vehicle is powered by a high-capacity 60 kWh battery.
- Tires are positioned close to the corners of the body to maximize interior space while enabling a wrap-around cabin design.
- Large-diameter wheels use very thin 175-size tires to minimize air and roll resistance.
- The wheels have a layered design suggestive of thin fins that create tiny vortexes of air flow on the wheel's surface. This design further contributes to smooth air flow.
Interesting stuff, to say the very least; but will consumers buy such vehicles? Will they willingly turn the driving over to a machine? Answering that question will take a while longer, I think.