Despite what Hollywood may have made us believe, making cars truly capable of autonomous driving - one that can drive for their owners rather than the other way around - is more difficult than it looks, regardless of your point of view.
From an engineering standpoint, achieving the technology is difficult. From a business and executive standpoint, there are a lot of dangers (and potential lawsuits) involved. From a consumer's standpoint, trusting the system -to effectively hand over control of their lives to a machine- is going to take a lot more than just the manufacturers and the engineers saying it works.
Understandably, many car makers out there are taking their time to develop, test, redevelop and retest the technology of autonomous drive until they are confident that they won't destroy their brand's name should one fail or worse, go Skynet. It took a rather brash move for Tesla to beat them to the punch as the company run by Elon Musk, an organization known for being at the forefront of tech, to push the technology to for their customers as an add-on to the Model S.
Nissan, however, does not consider Tesla to be a competitor, a fact that they shared with us during our drive of their latest achievement, the Nissan Serena with ProPilot technology, in the heart of Japan. It made sense; Tesla as an organization is more IT company than car company, and not necessarily bound by the same rules as most automobile manufacturers.
Now before you think that the ProPilot technology is meant to be like the autonomous Audi R8 concept that Will Smith was driving on I, Robot, it's best to keep those expectations in check. The ProPilot, like Tesla's AutoPilot, is meant to assume the responsibilities of single-lane highway driving. Sorry to burst that bubble, but ProPilot cannot weave in and around traffic, nor can it be programmed like a navigation system to drive you from your parking spot and straight to the office. How we wish, right?
Perhaps its best to think of ProPilot as the next logical progression of cruise control technology. Originally, cruise control was made to enable the driver to lift the foot from the throttle over long drives. It works by holding the throttle position to maintain a certain speed. Over time, it was upgraded to be used on electronic throttle control (ETC) units that comprise modern drive-by-wire (DBW) systems.
The advent of range-detecting technology in modern automobiles as sonar and radar made the next step possible: adaptive cruise control (ACC). The technology takes the concept of cruise control further by being able to automatically modulate the vehicle's speed regardless of the programmed speed by the driver in order to maintain a safe distance to the car ahead; a prescribed gap that the driver usually sets as well. So if the driver set the speed (a) 100 km/h as well as (b) a gap of 2 or 3 car lengths (more or less), the electronic control unit (ECU) will cruise at 100 km/h until it encounters a car, at which point a safer will be prioritized.
ProPilot takes the Adaptive Cruise Control system and levels it up by adding automated steering control via the electrically assisted power steering, but it wasn't that simple either. They had to make sure their technology was cutting edge, and able to easily and accurately detect other cars, lane markings, and many more. And now, it's in production form in the Serena.
The Serena, as you may know, is not a sports car, an executive car, or a 4x4. No, it's a Japanese minivan, one intended to move families than businessmen in fine suits. At first glance, it's an unusual platform to launch their proprietary autonomous driving technology, but when you stop to think, it makes more sense: parents are more tired and more distracted with the needs of their children, and so having a system able to competently take over is not only logical, but practical.
Technically the Serena is no longer offered in the Philippine market, nor is there an indication that it ever will be, but Nissan brought us to their exclusive test track in Oppama to try it out and sample the future with ProPilot technology.
The minivan had decent acceleration and superb smoothness from its 2.0 liter gasoline engine. Yes, it's quite small in displacement, but the Serena wasn't built for high speed or maximum acceleration anyway. The X-Tronic CVT drives the front wheels, though Nissan also has versions that drive all four wheels.
After getting up to sufficient speed and with the lanes clearly marked, the Nissan man next to me told me to activate ProPilot, which I did via some buttons on the wheel. It's an odd sensation, as immediately the wheel starts to take command of the Serena, coursing it through as the road curves to the right and then to the left.
As I said, ProPilot isn't full autonomy; it's basically Phase 1 of the whole program, enabling the driver to reduce his load on long cruises by having ProPilot take over. It sounds trivial if you're driving short stints on the highway, but on longer routes (100 or so kilometers) it can be very nifty to have around.
Nissan achieved the technology by integrating the electrical functions of the car such as the windshield camera, the parking brake, the power steering, the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) system, and the ADAS ECU. As expected it's behaves like a very advanced form of adaptive cruise control; one that can can steer and brake fully on its own.
The camera senses the lane markings and adjusts the wheel accordingly to stay in the lane. It also detects the vehicle in front, judges the distance, and adjusts the speed to maintain a certain gap, regardless of the speed that was set by the driver. If the car ahead comes to a complete stop, the Serena ProPilot will stop with it, something we put to the test quite a few times.
The technology is certainly eye-opening, but it has its share of limitations. For one, the driver cannot fully remove his or her hands from the wheel; the Serena can detect if there is no pressure on the steering wheel, and will warn the driver if none is detected. Also, the instructor told us to monitor the ProPilot icon on the LCD screen just in case it goes off. It's quite a contradiction, especially since the point was to reduce driver load, a benefit that constantly having to monitor a little icon on the LCD won't give. If anything, it can increase driver stress.
Despite those, the technology is very promising, even in this early stage. Currently, ProPilot is capable of single-lane driving, though the next stage, the multi-lane version of ProPilot, is projected to arrive in 2018. In 2020, Nissan hopes to follow it up with a ProPilot that can handle traffic junctions by 2020.
The future is bright, and potentially autonomous, but judging by how I felt behind the wheel, there is still a ways to go for this technology. I wouldn't expect it in cars such as the GT-R, but for daily driven cars like a Serena, I see the benefit of it.
Still, ProPilot is one heck of a party trick to show your buddies, but it's far from the look-mom-no-hands kind of driving that we all envision can handle our motoring needs, despite what Hollywood will have us believe.