Autonomous vehicles are no longer just a figment of the imagination, nor are they the preserve of science fiction. They are coming and whether you like the idea or not, in 10 years time, it's likely that autonomous vehicles will be considered the norm.

Each automotive company has different ideas and plans with regards to their autonomous futures, but they are all gunning for the same goal: safer roads and stress-free transportation.

This is everything you need to know about Nissan's autonomous plans and what we can expect from the company that has the potential to quickly bring this technology to the masses.

When will we see autonomous Nissan cars on the road?

Nissan's first step into autonomous technology - called ProPILOT - is already available, it's just not in Europe or the US just yet.

Nissan launched the ProPILOT on the Serena in Japan in August 2016 and at that time announced it would be coming to the face-lifted Qashqai in Europe in 2017. The US and China will also see ProPILOT eventually, but as yet no specific timeline has been detailed.

Nissan has, however, said that ProPILOT will be introduced on 10 of its core models by 2020. It hasn't yet been revealed which models these will be, but we'd hazard a guess that a new electric Nissan Leaf will be one of them.


What is Nissan ProPILOT and how does it work?

Nissan's ProPILOT is not a completely automated self-driving system like some others. Instead it is more of a driving assist function that incorporates self-driving features. Think of it as dipping your toe into the water rather than diving right in.

ProPILOT is activated and deactivated using a dedicated button on the steering wheel and it will take care of steering, acceleration and braking, based on information obtained through a mono camera using advanced image-processing software.

Based on the information received and processed, the car will respond accordingly, whether that means slowing down to keep a safe distance between you and the preceding car, turning a corner keeping in the middle of the lane, or speeding up to keep up with traffic flow.

Your hands, or a finger, will need to remain on the steering wheel and it has been designed for use in single-lane traffic for now. By 2018, Nissan plans to introduce multi-lane highway support, followed by urban areas and junctions support in 2020.

What's next for Nissan's autonomous driving technology?

Nissan ProPILOT isn't as advanced as other systems already out there, like Tesla's Autopilot that is already capable of handling multi-lane highways, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Nissan confirmed at its second Nissan Futures event, held in Barcelona in November 2016, that it is currently working on developing technology to enable autonomous vehicles to understand different social behaviours, no matter what country or city they are driving in.

As different countries and cities have varying attitudes and behaviours towards road use, autonomous vehicles need to be able to replicate the social interaction we currently have when driving ourselves, which, according to Nissan, isn't an easy problem to solve.

Nissan is therefore contemplating the idea of developing an autonomous vehicle that communicates intent, as seen with its IDS concept, presented at the Tokyo Motor Show earlier in 2016.

At the second Nissan Futures event, a company spokesperson said it was better to communicate intent rather than tell people what to do; the autonomous car of the future might have coloured exterior lights to indicate to pedestrians that it is aware of them, or say "Stopping" or "About to Go" on a screen on its dash to tell you what it plans to do next.

Nissan has said that there would need to be a level of standardisation across companies to work effectively though, and it is also currently illegal in some countries to have extra exterior lights on vehicles so there is still a long way to go before we see this on our roads.


What are the current obstacles for autonomous cars?

There are a number of other obstacles in the way of fully autonomous vehicles. One of those is trust, which may be gained through ideas like the vehicle communicating intent, but another major obstacle is policy. Governments and policy makers not only need to be on the front foot, but autonomous vehicles is a cross-policy issue.

Spokespeople on the topic of policy at Nissan's Futures event said autonomous vehicles were not just about transport, but they cross over into other aspects too, such as healthcare. For example, at present an ambulance will normally have two medics, one of which will drive, while the other will attend to the patient. An autonomous ambulance could mean both medics could attend to the patient, but this would mean a change to more than just transport policies.

Other issues regarding policy appear when it comes to blame in an accident. Who is at fault - man or machine - if an autonomous vehicle is involved in a collision? It's another question that needs an answer but Nissan has said there are currently some talks surrounding whether autonomous vehicles may have a data recording device, like an aircraft's black box to help determine blame.

Autonomous driving: Passenger vs pedestrian?

Policy and trust aside, and you have another million dollar question that no one seems to be able to answer. What happens if an autonomous vehicle finds itself in a situation where it has to make a decision between avoiding a pedestrian and keeping its passenger safe from a collision?

Dr Maarten Sierhuis, director of Nissan's research centre in Silicon Valley, told us that the company wouldn't develop a system with these ethical decision making capabilities.

Sierhuis said the system will in all cases avoid obstacles, but it's not possible to develop a system that knows all situations.


Nissan's autonomous driving future: Conclusion

At the moment, autonomous vehicles are a thing, and there are plenty of companies invested in making them a reality, Nissan being one of them.

Next year we will see Nissan take its first step with the launch of its ProPILOT technology on the Qashqai, and the four years following will see it introduced to more cars, as well as become more advanced, adding support for motorways and urban areas.

Beyond that, we know Nissan is working on making its autonomous technology as clever as possible and as human as possible, but there is still a long way to go with regards to policy and trust.