Nissan is one of the latest car manufacturers to hop on the autonomous driving bandwagon, having just announced its ProPILOT technology.
The system is heading for the UK version of the Qashqai in 2017 and it aims is to assist drivers on the motorway, taking on some of the controls, while the driver can sit back.
Make no mistake, ProPILOT is not a completely automated self-driving system like some others we have tried. It won't change lanes for you, it won't move you over when another car is coming up behind you at over 200kmph, and if you stop for longer than three seconds, you'll need to reactivate it. But, it offers a glimpse into the future of driving and a future that is accessible.
Nissan ProPILOT: How does it work?
The beauty of Nissan's ProPILOT system is its simplicity. Like Audi's piloted driving, the system is activated with a push of a dedicated button on the steering wheel. In Audi's case, it's a simultaneous push of two buttons, while with Nissan, it's a press of the Pilot button, followed by a press of the Set button.
After the Set button has been pushed, it's then possible for the driver to set the speed up to 62mph, which is shown on the 7-inch dash. When the system is activated, the word Pilot will appear at the top of the dash in blue, along with the car in front and green lines indicating the lane markings.
ProPILOT currently only works in single lane traffic, using a high resolution mono camera situated behind the rear view mirror to recognise vehicles and lane markings in three dimensional depth thanks to Mobileye's image processing. Rival systems tend to combine cameras with other sensors like radar and ultrasonic and some are also a little more advanced in terms of features. Tesla's AutoPilot, for example, is capable of dealing with multi-lane highways, which is something Nissan plans to introduce to ProPILOT in 2018, followed by support for urban areas and junctions in 2020.
In terms of the current ProPILOT technology however, information obtained by the camera is processed by the Advanced Driver Assistant System (ADAS) ECU microprocessor and the car responds accordingly, whether this be slowing down to keep a safe distance between you and the preceding car, or turning a corner as seamlessly as possible, keeping in the middle of the lane. There is an electric parking brake to ensure the position of the car is held when it comes to a stop, while an Electronic Control Module (ECM) is responsible for throttle control, Electronic Power Steering (EPS) allows for automated steering and Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) ensures automated braking.
It's required by law for your hands to remain on the wheel, even when an autonomous driving system is steering for you. In the case of Nissan's ProPILOT, this can be just a finger when travelling at slow speeds but the sensor sensitivity increases as speed does, meaning you'll probably have to place a few more fingers on if travelling at the max 62mph. The steering wheel uses torque sensors rather than touch so it is able to detect the force with which you are holding the wheel and not just whether you are holding it.
When the system is happy with your hand and wheel relationship, a green steering wheel icon appears in the dash. Take your hand off entirely for more than 20 seconds and the system will warn you nicely once, followed by a harsher warning. Ignore the second warning and ProPILOT deactivates. The system will also warn the driver and deactivate if it doubts any elements of its ability, such as if there is too much sunlight affecting the camera's vision and processing capabilities.
Nissan ProPILOT: What is it like?
Cruising around a Nissan test track with our feet on the floor and our hands only gently touching the wheel was somewhat liberating. There is something amazing about sitting in the driver's seat, but not actually having to pay much attention to anything, other than the technology we are testing.
The ProPILOT system felt almost natural by the end of our second drive, although we'd be lying if we said it still isn't a little scary. The autonomous steering part is something we could easily get used to though, despite it feeling a little odd lightly holding the wheel and feeling it pull. The car turned corners smoothly and remained in the middle of the lane. We did experience a couple of drifts to the left after going under a bridge however and while they weren't substantial enough to have us intervene, they were enough for us to notice.
Inclines were also a little less impressive than we expected with the car seeming to lack power. The ProPILOT system delivers a mild acceleration to get you up the hill slowly and we found it a little too slow. Whether our impatience is to blame or the 30mph maximum speed limit, we were tempted to intervene here just to speed things up. That said, general automated acceleration was good.
Unlike autonomous steering, we aren't sure autonomous braking is something that will ever stop us holding our breath for a brief moment. It worked perfectly though, with the car gradually reducing speed as we approached the car in front. Nissan claims the ProPILOT technology is better than emergency braking systems. As we mentioned previously, stop for longer than three seconds and you have to press the resume button (RES+) or touch the accelerator for ProPILOT to kick in again, much like existing adaptive cruise control systems.
The reactivation is quick and easy but three seconds is not long enough, especially in the UK with traffic jams often involving cars stopping for a lot longer. Less than three seconds and the car automatically starts following the preceding car, keeping a safe distance. It's all very civilised but the three-second rule is certainly something we would like to see increase when the technology launches in Europe, as well as the 62mph speed limit to at least 70mph.
Our test drives with the ProPILOT technology were restricted to a test track, as well as a 30mph speed. It's worth noting if there is no car in front, the ProPILOT system will not work when travelling at speeds under 30mph. It's also worth mentioning the test track featured very clear road markings, which won't always be the case in real life and without the clear markings, the system won't work.
Nissan ProPILOT: When will it be available and how much will it cost?
Nissan's ProPILOT technology will be available on the new Serena from August in Japan. Although an exact price wasn't detailed, Nissan said the technology would be available for under three million Japanese Yen, which is around £21,500.
ProPILOT will be coming to Europe on a face-lifted Qashqai in 2017. No specific date or price has been announced, but the current top-spec Qashqai costs around £27,000, which is quite a bit less than a Tesla featuring the AutoPilot option. The technology will also be coming to the US and China but no timeline was given.
Nissan plans to have 10 core car models featuring ProPILOT within the next four years.
Nissan ProPILOT: First impressions
The Nissan ProPILOT technology is a great step in the right direction when it comes to bringing autonomous driving to the masses. Yes, there are systems more advanced out there already, but these systems are on cars that cost double, if not triple the price.
Nissan plays it safe with the first launch of ProPILOT. It is basically a combination of existing technologies and while the automated steering part is mostly new, the other elements are very much like adaptive cruise control.
We found a couple of little niggles, such as the three-second rule and lack of power on an incline but overall, the ProPILOT system appears to do what it is supposed to. It is is a great starting block to build consumer confidence in autonomous driving technology and it has every potential to make those boring long distance journeys and traffic jams that little bit more bearable by removing some of the legwork … literally.