Nissan Autonomous LEAF Sets Me Dreaming of What Could Be in China

I have ridden in what should be China’s future. It would save countless hours stuck in traffic and countless lives.

A few days ago I was at the Nissan 360 media event here in California at the lovely Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach. Automakers always host media at super-lux places. That way at least we are in a good mood when we check out their vehicles, the thinking must be. I had my own bungalow. Larger than an apartment I lived in back in Hong Kong. But I digress.

One of the vehicles available to drive, or in this case ride in, was the autonomous LEAF electric vehicle. It looks a lot like the regular old LEAF, but it has 6 sensors arrayed at strategic points on the exterior. Why did they chose the LEAF as the first autonomous vehicle, I asked the Nissan engineer who was not going to drive the vehicle. “The technology is okay for an internal combustion engine car,” he said, “but the electric vehicle is easier to control because the motor is more reactive. It is a better combination.”

For those of you dreaming of well, dreaming, away a trip to the office in traffic-chocked Beijing or Los Angeles, forget it. The “driver” does have to at least be alert – in this autonomous vehicle. How about drunk drivers, I asked? Not in this version, but Nissan is working on technology that will detect if a driver is drunk, said the Nissan engineer.

Still, the LEAF Autonomous Vehicle detected and read speed limit signs, avoided a large truck entering traffic in front of us, a pedestrian stepping out in front of us, and a lot of road furniture including cones and barriers, and of course detected a red light and stop sign. The valet function was pretty cool as well. The “valet” had the key fob. The “driver” simply left the car with the valet, he pressed the key fob, the car went and found a spot and parked itself. Then, when the driver returned the valet pressed the key fob and the car returned. How cool is that?

This version is not ready for prime-time. Among other improvements needed, said the Japanese engineer, is sensors with finer resolution. The current sensors on the LEAF only detect at 30 to 40 centimeters, he said. Nissan wants plus or minus 1 centimeter. “We are looking for a partner” with that technology, he said.

The autonomous vehicle is “an important step in a world of zero fatalities,” said Roel De-Vries, Nissan’s global corporate vice president of marketing. Nissan’s has its twin zeros marketing thing – zero emissions and zero fatalities. As I sat in the Nissan LEAF and it drove though the highway and urban courses, I got to thinking “Gee, this would be really great in China!” It is about as far from zero fatalities as any country in the world.

Imagine it. Cars would actually stop at stop signs and red lights. They would know how to merge on to a highway. They wouldn’t feel obligated to cut in front of you just because that space was there and needed to be filled in. They would stop before they hit a pedestrian or bicycle or another car. They would know how to park. It gave me shivers.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said autonomous vehicles will be in Nissan showrooms by 2020. Please get them to showrooms in China sooner. I didn’t ask if China was a target market, but no automaker can bypass China with a significant new product, so assume the autonomous vehicles will be there, too. China is one of the top two countries in the world for traffic fatalities; India is right up there, as well. The Chinese authorities put the number of traffic deaths in China in 2012 in the tens of thousands, but even the Chinese press says that number is low. A more dependable source, Bloomberg Philanthropies, puts the number at 220,000 annually. Bottom line: A lot of people die in cars or because of cars in China each year.

If you live there, you know why. Most Chinese are first-generation drivers. Chinese driving schools don’t teach defensive driving. Road rules, including stop signs, are treated more as suggestions than rules. After all, if one stops at a stop sign too long, someone else might get to a some goal that the driver desires first. In China, it’s all about taking advantage of opportunity when it presents itself.

Nissan has said it may produce the LEAF in China. Please do, and please make it an autonomously-driven LEAF! But also produce an autonomously-driven version of your best-selling model in China. And price it so people will buy it. And make it impossible to override the system at stop signs! Otherwise it will be useless…..

Article by Alysha Webb, a freelance automotive journalist and founder of ChinaEV Blog.

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