Nissan sent waves of excitement through the automotive industry when it unveiled its NSC-2015 prototype – a car that can drive itself without the need for a driver – in front of eager crowds at the Ceatec 2012 Show in Tokyo this week. Among the electric car’s party tricks is the ability to park itself and come to its owner when “called”.
This is an exciting development not just for those in the automotive industry, but also for international technology on a whole. Although this car is still just a prototype, its name suggests that Nissan may be aiming to market this car by as soon as 2015.
The NSC-2015 is modelled on Nissan’s hugely popular Leaf, a vehicle that has played a significant role in helping to bring electric and hybrid vehicles to mainstream audiences.
Researching autonomous technology
Nissan’s autonomous car uses wireless links to navigate, by relying on a combination of sensors, computers, cameras and 4G communication technology. Its steering wheel, accelerator, brake system and gear changes are controlled by robotics.
At its live demonstration at Ceatec, the self-driving car reached a speed of 3 mph (5 kph). It drove forwards and backwards in a straight line, and was able to perform a turn. The demonstration showed the audience how the car could recognise road markings and crossings, and was able to adjust its position or stop accordingly.
During the live showing, the car was controlled externally by a Nissan technician. He manoeuvred the vehicle by pressing a series of buttons through his smartphone.
A spokesperson for Nissan said that, upon the driver exiting the NSC-2015, the car would start to park itself automatically, following instructions given via a smartphone. "The vehicle looks for a vacant parking space while identifying its surroundings,” the spokesperson explained. “Once it detects an open parking space automated parking begins. The driver can also use smartphone commands to make the NSC-2015 vehicle leave the parking space and return to the place where he or she is.”
California joins Florida and Nevada in allowing driverless vehicles on its roads, a sure sign that they are becoming a reality for our not too distant future. However, some analysts are sceptical that the public is ready. “I think that market for driverless cars is limited at the moment,” said Paul Newton, of HIS Automotive. “People still have a fairly strong desire to control their car, and producing these vehicles is more showcasing what's possible than what's likely at the moment."
It could also be a case of the technology not yet being developed enough to be brought to mass market. An engineer at Nissan admitted that the company’s NSC 2015 was not yet able to drive itself along a street or park itself in any space. Instead, it relied on being in areas that were equipped with sensors and were also restricted to other robotic vehicles.
Future of driving
Many analysts do agree, however, that driverless cars are the direction in which the consumer automotive market is heading. Many cars are already fitted with many autonomous technology features such as cruise control and parking sensors. It is also hoped that driverless cars will enable those with physical impairments to safely transport themselves by using technology that will eliminate the need for controlling many aspects of driving. "You have ad hoc car-to-car networking which will alert cars of problems ahead, roadside transmissions to limit speed, controlled steering and braking,” Newton continued. “And all these technologies will eventually converge to a point where you can arrive at something that drives itself.”
In for a wait
Those hoping to purchase a driverless car may have a bit of a wait; they are not yet available to the public. Even if the self-driving cars were to be made available to the public now, it would likely be difficult to find new or used car loans that would be long enough to allow someone approaching retirement (the autonomous car’s key market) to buy one. This is because the technology is so new that it is still highly expensive (a scanner alone costs around $70,000). It can already be a difficult-enough task for those in their retirement to get guaranteed car credit (although with the right provider, this is still possible); it may be a better use of energy to search instead for an existing vehicle that has other more readily-available features that allow for an easy drive, such as power-steering, parking sensors and portable hand controls.
Mass-produced driverless cars are, according to Newton, “still a long way off."