By the year 2020 autonomous vehicle technology will have well and truly arrived, but before a driverless vehicle can take to the streets Nissan has begun the roll-out of its self-driving technology in steps, starting with this one: ProPilot.
ProPilot is Nissan’s first semi-autonomous function that combines adaptive cruise control with full-stop ability and self-steering on clearly defined roads, taking the strain out of highway driving or traffic jam situations.
While Japanese consumers have had the opportunity to buy a ProPilot equipped Serena minivan since August, it has yet to be made available in any cars sold locally. However, Australian media were recently given their first experience at ProPilot at Nissan’s Oppama engineering facility in Japan ahead of its eventual roll-out into newer models.
Vehicle Style: People mover
Price: From $33,500 (approx)
Engine/trans: 110kW/200Nm 2.0 litre 4cyl petrol | CVT automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.0 l/100km
The minivan wrapped around the ProPilot technology isn’t all that important here as the eight-seat Serena isn't sold locally. It is perfect for Japan, where people movers still sell in significant numbers, but if the Serena were to come to Australia it would be all but invisible in this SUV-crazed market.
That’s why you won’t see the Serena here as an official import, but you will see the ProPilot autonomous technology that allows it to drive itself in highway conditions, and that what TMR travelled to Japan to discover.
Of course Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Tesla all have partially autonomous systems of their own that aim to do something similar to Nissan’s ProPilot, however all are attached to expensive models. In the case of the Serena, ProPilot can be yours for as little as ¥2,916,000 (A$33,500)
What a clever little thing the Serena is. Though it is smaller externally than the popular grey-import Elgrand minivan that’s a common sight on Australian roads, the Serena still has room for eight passengers.
It’s also hugely flexible with sliding second and third row seats, a second row centre seat that can slide forward to between the front seats, and storage and configuration options galore to make the most of the Serena’s compact footprint.
The crucial bit though is the ProPilot button on the steering wheel, in place of a regular cruise control switch, and the large seven-inch display mounted high in the dash to the left of the instrument cluster which gives at-a-glance status info for the ProPilot system
ON THE ROAD
With a lead car to follow, the Serena is able to bring itself down to a complete standstill and hold itself there, but with no lead car the system can’t drop below 50km/h and can’t bring the car to a stop at a set of traffic lights by itself.
At Nissan’s Grandrive circuit the ProPilot system is able to accelerate and brake as smoothly as a human driver would and the steering, around the admittedly gentle curves of the engineering complex, was well controlled and can easily be taken over by the driver if required.
Though the system is capable of operating at highway speeds the official preview was capped at 50km/h, designed to show how the distance-keeping cruise control can maintain a safe following distance from the vehicle in front and bringing the Serena to a complete stop if traffic ahead grinds to a halt.
After being stopped for three seconds the system requires driver confirmation to resume its journey, but in shorter stop-and-go situations, like those found in heavy peak hour traffic, the Serena will continue to follow without the need for driver intervention.
While the system is impressive it still has a few minor shortcomings. There were times where ProPilot wasn’t able to detect lane markings - one of the reasons it suggests drivers maintain a grip on the wheel - and in traffic jam situations the gap between the lead car and the following car seems excessive, but that’s only a minor complaint.
Within the confines of Nissan’s closed road loop it’s a little difficult to get a feel for how the system might handle real-world situations, though it should cope just fine.
User-friendliness is at least well sorted as activating the system is as easy as engaging cruise control by pressing the ProPilot button on the steering wheel, then setting the required speed.
Just like regular cruise control ProPilot can be tapped up or down to alter the speed limit and the resume button is all it takes to restart travel after a stop of longer than three seconds.
It’s that simple useability which Nissan is hoping will ease transition to its autonomous future.
It isn’t difficult to understand, nor is it difficult to use, and the fact it can’t operate everywhere (just like cruise control) means drivers will still need to be an integral part of the process - a good thing for all but the most lazy commuters.
To operate the way it does, Nissan’s ProPilot system is actually a relatively simple collection of systems working together. There’s controls for the accelerator, brakes, handbrake, steering and cameras monitoring the surrounding area.
That means the system does without the multiple radar, lidar, and other sensors that more complex systems use, and that’s how Nissan is able to equip a sub-$40k minivan with the technology, making it accessible to a waider range of buyers.
Nissan Australia is also yet to confirm when the system will arrive, but it will come here. Overseas the Qashqai is next in line to get the system during 2017 and by 2020 10 mainstream vehicles in the Nissan and Infiniti ranges will adopt a version of the ProPiot system
Not only that, but by 2018 Nissan will add the ability to autonomously change lanes and safely navigate multi-lane highways before adding urban abilities to the system by 2020. That’s a fairly rapid roll-out of technology that average motorists will be easily able to afford.
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