As self-driving cars edge closer to reality, we go for a ride in an autonomous Nissan Leaf prototype
Richard Webber
17 October 2013

The race for mass-market self-driving cars is well and truly on.

Mercedes-Benz recently tested an autonomous S-class on public roads and declared it wants to be first to market such a car, tentatively suggesting it would do so this decade. But Nissan has boldly announced plans to sell affordable self-driving cars by 2020, so we took the chance to assess its progress via an autonomous Leaf prototype.

It’s all part of Nissan’s ‘Blue Citizenship’ social responsibility plan, a trinity of goals consisting of zero emissions (the Leaf is already the world’s best-selling EV by far), near-zero fatalities and mobility for all. It’s the latter aims that autonomous driving will tackle; after all, 93 per cent of the US’s road accidents are caused by human error, and an autonomous car could also grant new independence to those unable to drive.

The tech is based on Nissan’s existing ‘Safety Shield’, a radar and camera-based set-up that has featured on 730,000 cars to date, bringing with it features such as lane departure warning, adaptive cruise and all-around camera views. The autonomous Leaf adds continuously scanning lasers — ten times more precise than radar — and a raft of new software algorithms to fuse, process and react to sensor feeds and actuation systems for the steering, accelerator and brakes. (Only the steering wheel is physically actuated; the Leaf’s accelerator and brakes are electronically controlled, so there’s no need for pedal movement, and the controls retain precautionary manual override.)

Autonomous driving is said to be safer simply because machines work more quickly than we do. Our eyes capture fewer frames per second than a high-speed camera, our brain processes data and reacts to it more slowly than a CPU, and our hands and feet are trounced for pace by electronic actuators.

In addition to safety and mobility benefits, autonomous cars would also relieve us of driving’s regular tedium. Why waste your attention edging through town or slogging up the motorway when you could be reading or working? Or, as one demo showed us, why spend your time parking when you could be shopping?

Nissan says the logical progression is for cars that communicate with each other to create optimum traffic flow without stop lights or lanes. Same space, more cars, less congestion. The company’s laser-equipped knee-high robots (‘EPOROs’) preview the possibility by moving together like a school of fish.


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Once the driver steps out, a ‘valet’ button on the key fob locks the doors and sets the car off to find a space, having recorded the drop-off point by GPS. Using lasers and cameras, the Leaf navigates around cars (both parked and moving) and painted lanes. When a space is identified, the Leaf signals, pulls past it, checks the size of the gap and then reverses in with the help of conventional radar sensors. Shopping done, the owner presses the valet button again and the Leaf navigates its way back to the starting point.

Sensor fusion

Fully equipped, the autonomous Leaf uses four cameras that combine to give a near-360 degree view (the front camera is a hi-res, long-range unit to help read road signs). A front radar sensor reads up to 200m ahead of the car, there is a further radar sensor at each rear corner (whose arrays overlap and extend to 70m), plus there’s the new bit: six laser scanners, positioned front, rear and at each corner. These scanners are the boxy addenda you see on the silver car and have a useful range of 100m. The laser control unit in the rear of the car collates the feeds, then sends signals to the steering actuator, accelerator and brakes.

Motorway driving

The Leaf observes lane discipline via laser scanners, passing slower vehicles using the outside lane and signalling appropriately. Unexpected obstacles such as errant pedestrians are recognised by the lasers, too, and if braking alone won’t avoid them, the steering actuators kick in. An ‘SOS’ button pulls the car in then triggers a call to the emergency services. All the while, speed limits are observed via sign recognition.

Urban driving

Working with or without sat-nav assistance, the Leaf identifies and negotiates complex urban scenarios such as US four-way stop sign intersections, acting on the first-stop, first-go convention by recognising road signs and monitoring the activity of other vehicles via laser scanning. Traffic lights are observed, accompanied by a “signal is red/green” voice message to explain the car’s behaviour. The Leaf also pauses behind parked vehicles before passing via the oncoming lane when it’s clear to do so.

The passenger experience

Though prone to adopting overly cautious driving lines around obstacles, the autonomous Nissan Leaf isn’t shy about calling on the electric drivetrain’s instant torque for rapid acceleration, and braking is fairly aggressive, too. 

The actuated steering inputs are a revelation, though; close your eyes and there could almost be human hands on the wheel, so smooth are the inputs — even during emergency manoeuvres.

Join the debate


17 October 2013

I like all this article about the really safety improvement of Autonomous vehicle but have you think about all this software bug lying around...

So really not for me i like more the old fashion way and i will stick to it

17 October 2013

I feel self driving cars are a solution to a problem that does not exist.
We already have vehicles that require no input from the user, thy call them buses.
Would you sit in a machine travelling at 60 mph on a single carriageway road trusting the car and software to act safely in all circumstances?
How will this car interact with other non autonomous vehicles and missing/damaged road signs/markings?
I feel whilst autonomous vehicles are an interesting experiment for engineers they are of virtually no use whatsoever for the vast majority of car drivers worldwide, similar in to current electric cars.

17 October 2013

As it's sure not the consumer, I notice no manufacturer has ever said how much it'll add to the price. Would you pay an extra £5,000 or £10,000 for a Focus say?

17 October 2013

How will it cope when it is confronted by an oncoming tractor, on a lane so narrow, like many where I live, that the tractor is overlapping both edges of the road surface? Will it be able to deal with that, or any similar scenario, where it will not be able to see a way past?

Furthermore what about mud, ice/snow and ruts?

17 October 2013

My eldest child is 6 so would be legal to drive around the time these cars are planned to be available. Add in another 10 years development of computer power and these cars will be safer than a teenage driver. Also all those at the other end of the life scale that shouldn't really be on the road but need to get about what a great option. What about that night out no longer need a named drive because they are called Nissan, no more insurance, no more road signs all electronic, no more stuck on the Motorway after a crash.

Not great for some jobs though no more taxi drivers, no more lorry drivers, no body repair shops, no car insurance companies, no traffic police. Would you actually buy a car anymore if you could order one to the door when you needed one, no more car sales men! Welcome to the future its just leisure time.

17 October 2013

If the need to own a car is removed then suddenly fleets of autonomous EV cars make sense the Nissan vision!

17 October 2013

It does seem the drivers days are numbered, as most simply don't enjoy driving, when 90% of driving is really just commuting, and the only really good roads are somewhere hidden in Wales populated purely by sheep or motoring journalists.

The self driving car does solve a lot of real life problems. I can also see car manufacturers operating huge taxi fleets themselves and cutting out small taxi firms, and richer people keeping their own car to feel more opulent.

It does also mean one more thing - the end for the motoring journalist, so it'll be interesting to see if self driving cars continue to get a good reception in the press.

17 October 2013

...need to be careful what they wish for.

Cars are an extension of the human desire for freedom, we choose certain types because they say something about us. The driving experience is part of that, we like the freedom to choose what speed we want to go and which route to take. We clean our cars and spend money on them because they are more than mere possessions.

If the car were to be autonomous, to drive itself, the ex-driver becomes a passenger, where is the desire to own something 'nice' then? I might as well be in a taxi. The car becomes a tool, an appliance. I will then have no desire to be loyal to a certain brand, to seek out car reviews, to be excited about motoring in any way. The car industry as we know it would fail to exist.

Careful what you wish for, you might be getting rid of your livelihood without realising it.

17 October 2013

Taxi drivers worst nightmare.

Great for driving the ex rover blue rinse brigade. It will make the roads 100 times safer.

17 October 2013

everyone seems to miss the major implication of autonomous cars - they'll be so much safer the human drivers that manual operation will be banned, it's as simple as that. don't you get it???!


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