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Nissan’s ProPilot Assist and the State of Autonomous Technology

The wait for the self-driving car…continues

The 2018 Nissan Leaf, scheduled to debut on September 6, adds ProPilot Assist, which provides SAE Level II autonomy. It will stop and start on its own in stop-and-go traffic and it will keep to its lane on the freeway, though you’ll still be in control with your hands on the wheel. That last bit is the legal disclaimer. Though Nissan-Renault is one of several leaders in the driverless car race, it’s not ready to take responsibility like Volvo is with the XC90 in the Swedish company’s very limited Drive Me test, which is underway in the automaker’s hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Nissan demonstrated ProPilot Assist in modified Rogue SUVs because it wasn’t ready to show us the second generation of its electric hatchback. The route began on a wide boulevard near Nissan’s Metro Detroit facility so it could demonstrate the full-braking intelligent cruise control, which works at speeds up to 90 mph. The system stops the car completely and will resume driving using the cruise control if the full stop lasts for no more than three seconds. If the stop breaches that time limit, the driver must press the “resume” button on the steering wheel to get the car going without resorting to the throttle pedal.

It’s easy, intuitive and works as advertised.

On the freeway — in this case I-696 eastbound to Woodward Avenue and back, roughly 15 miles in each direction — the steering assist accurately followed the lane lines, even under a couple of tunnels that are well-lit, but still outside of the sunshine. ProPilot gives you about five seconds of no torque on the steering wheel before a dashboard warning tells you to grab the wheel. This is more conservative than systems that have been on the market for a few years from brands like Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and Acura.

You’re not supposed to take your attention away from the road, though in stop-and-go, rush hour freeway traffic. ProPilot Assist just gives you some time to key in a phone number or find a radio station or a song on your playlists. Officially, as far as Nissan’s lawyers are concerned, ProPilot alleviates the stress of throttle-brake, throttle-brake and need for minor steering corrections during such rush hours.

In the bigger picture of frenzied autonomous car development, Nissan’s system is a small step towards the ability to text or have breakfast during your morning commute. It appears to be a half-step short of Cadillac’s SuperCruise, which goes on sale this fall and is also described as “Level II,” and it’s certainly short of the 2019 Audi A8’s AI Traffic Jam Pilot, though it’s unclear whether that system – hands and feet off up to 37 mph, and automated parking – will be legal anywhere when the car goes on sale later this year.

This can be blamed, partially, on Tesla, whose CEO Elon Musk claimed to have solved autonomous driving in record time until dangerous YouTube videos and a tragic fatal accident hampered the brand’s genius.

Don’t be swayed by claims from any one company, whether tech, automotive, or Tier 1 supplier, that it’s a clear leader in developing autonomous cars. While it’s true that Google (now Waymo) has been working on it since the last decade, GM has been working on it longer and like Google and Volkswagen, among others, eagerly participated in the DARPA Challenges that jump-started interest in driverless vehicles. Google/Waymo, for one thing, has done virtually all its testing in Northern California, where there’s no snow or ice to obliterate the road markings that cameras must read.

Honda received criticism recently for being behind in autonomous development, though I took part in a couple of demonstrations several years ago. And this Japanese automaker has taken the lead in developing systems that can identify motorcycles, with their constantly changing profiles, because, of course, Honda sells motorcycles.

Ford Motor Company, which was very quiet about its efforts just a couple of years ago, is now considered a leader once former CEO Mark Fields started talking about it and made promises of Level IV by 2021. Toyota Motor Company, like Daimler, has long been a leader, though neither company has been saying much about self-driving cars in the last couple of years.

As for Tesla, I “drove” a Continental AG test car with, say, Level III autonomy about a year before Musk appeared to have just discovered the technology.

All these companies rely on such suppliers as Velodyne and Mobileye for their systems, and so I think they’re all at similar levels of development, though so-called disruptive tech companies don’t appear to have the same sort of patience for long-term development that safety regulation-wary automakers have. The tech companies, even Tesla, have started to learn a more zen-like attitude: When the technology meets all the new safety standards, the driverless car will appear.

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