Yesterday we brought you news that Nissan hopes to release a fully autonomous car by 2020. Today we have seen this technology in action.

Self-driving cars that can park themselves and take you to work while you answer emails on your laptop may be just seven years away – but the biggest problem is not the technology, but convincing drivers they want them, believes Nissan.

At a special event in California, was given an early taste of the technology of the future and heard from a former NASA scientist about why he left the space programme to make a "real difference to the world" with these cars.

Maarten Sierhuis, head of Nissan’s research centre in Silicon Valley, explained that although there’s still a lot of work to do on the technology, the biggest problem with autonomous cars would be overcoming legislation.

“Here in California self-driving cars can be used on the road, but the battle to get them approved in all states and across the world will be a tough one,” he explained.

The technology has made dramatic leaps forward in recent years. During our demonstration we experienced a Nissan Leaf navigating a city-style test course with ease – the steering, acceleration and braking were all controlled by the computer’s “brain” with impressive efficiency.

The car uses a series of cameras and radar sensors linked to GPS navigation and detailed maps to negotiate the course. It stopped on its own at junctions, pulled out and around a parked car when it was safe and we even watched as it drove off to park itself in a bay when we were finished.

“The cameras can spot hazards the human eye wouldn’t and they have a wider field of vision,” explained Kunio Nakaguro, Nissan’s R&D vice president. “The computer works 100 times faster than the human brain and can take quick, precise action on the road.”

Nissan has promised to have the technology ready in just seven years, and it was clear it’s a long way down the line already.

Sierhuis quit his job at NASA to work on the autonomous driving project because "we’re not going to Mars any time soon and these cars can make a real difference to the world".

And with Google investing millions into their own self-driving cars it’s obvious this is a technology that is set to explode into the market a lot sooner than many of us think.

“Some say it will ruin the joy of driving, but I say it will improve it,” added Sierhuis. “There aren’t many of us who have at one point been sat in our cars wishing we were doing something else. If you could use the time taken for your daily commute to do something else instead, wouldn’t you want to do that? I certainly would.

“It’s when the public realises the technology’s potential and understands cars will still be enjoyable to drive that it will really take off.”

James Baggott


August 30, 2013

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