NEW YORK -- Nissan Motor will unveil its new Leaf EV on Sept. 6 in Japan, its first production vehicle that will steer and stop by itself, at least every once in a while.
This week, Nissan loaded the ProPilot technology onto some of its SUVs and brought them to New York for a test drive, the perfect place to put a new phase of autonomous technology through its paces.
Driving in Manhattan requires a modicum of patience, something most New Yorkers don't have at least not when they're in a car, so anything to help commuters relax a little in their vehicles is helpful for everyone traveling along the city's congested arteries. That's precisely what Nissan's new system is supposed to do.
When activated by the push of a button and the setting of cruise-control speed, it keeps the car in the center of a lane, steering through corners. At the same time, it maintains a safe distance to the vehicle ahead and will brake all the way to a stop, the default state of most New York city drives. The system even resumes driving without a prompt, provided that the automobile has only been still for less than three seconds.
"Basically, we're focused on fatigue reduction," explained Andy Christensen, senior manager of Nissan's Intelligent Transportation Systems Research.
This technology is not, Christensen insisted, an autonomous driving system. The steering wheel senses feedback (not touch); if there isn't evidence of any physical tug, ProPilot escalates a series of warnings, including audio chimes and brake checks. Eventually, the vehicle will turn on its hazard lights and come to a stop midlane.
Self driving for the masses
Plenty of vehicles on the market do what Nissan's new system offers, but not at the cost of this setup. The Leaf is intended to fill the autonomous-capabilities gap that exists for machines that cost less than $40,000 or so. What Nissan's system delivers is a passable impression of a Mercedes-Benz, or an Audi, Tesla, or Volvo.
"Passable," though, is the key word: Nissan's package isn't infallible. For one thing, it requires clear lane markers on each side to steer properly. On our 40-minute trip from Midtown Manhattan to its northern peak, painted lines were sporadic and the system often simply shut off, signaling its disengagement with a chime.
Meanwhile, it's designed to steer only up to a certain level of aggressiveness (the parameters set by forces of gravity). Coming into a series of twists a little bit hot, the ProPilot couldn't keep us centered, even though the car was still plenty capable.
The problem is that the sensors and cameras that allow for a more seamless autonomous drive tend to be expensive, and thus remain squarely in the realm of luxury cars. Nissan's ProPilot uses just one camera to read the lane margins and one radar unit to measure distance to the vehicle in front.
"We're trying to make it accessible and attainable," said Brittany Tessmer, senior engineer on the project.
In the gray area between analog driving and full autonomy, Nissan's new system represents a very light shade, which to me is the biggest drawback for it and all the other systems like it. It's only a mild iteration beyond adaptive cruise control, which comes standard on 25 percent of current vehicles, and lane departure warnings, which are available in one-third, according to Edmunds.com.
When the driver is alert, the nanny steering and braking can be annoying, particularly if one likes to drift toward the inside of sweeping highway curves. If the driver isn't alert, it's even more grating.
To be sure, that needling is necessary, but I've found myself wondering more than once: Is this an autonomous step too small to be worth taking? Why not just wait to roll out something more fully developed?
"There are always going to be people who just want to get in and wake up in their driveway," Tessmer said of the desire for full autonomy. "Until the technology gets there, they don't want it."
What the ProPilot seems suited for, most directly, is the smartphone. With one hand on the wheel, a driver can easily toggle through emails or watch a movie. The system may not be totally self-driving, but in that case the driver certainly won't be, either.