A Nissan car has completed a 230-mile journey on UK roads without a driver at the wheel.

The autonomous test, which was conducted in secret, saw a Nissan Leaf travel from the company's test centre in Cranfield, just outside Milton Keynes, to its factory in Sunderland.

Along the way, the car had to navigate and drive across a range of different conditions, dealing with roundabouts, motorways, and roads with no or minimal markings.

It was, claims Nissan, the UK's most complex autonomous drive to date - being almost three years in the making.

The company says that it ran the "Grand Drive" because the UK gives it a wide variety of difficult driving conditions beyond just motorways.

"The HumanDrive project allowed us to develop an autonomous vehicle that can tackle challenges encountered on UK roads that are unique to this part of the world, such as complex roundabouts and high-speed country lanes with no road markings, white lines or kerbs," explained Nissan's project manager, Bob Bateman."

Nissan

The test vehicles included Nissan Leafs and featured GPS, radar and lidar, plus camera technologies that build up a perception of the world around them to help other vehicle avoidance.

Although there were two Nissan engineers present in the car at all times, they didn't interact with the driving during the 230-mile trip.

Greater levels of autonomy

The Nissan-led consortium behind the project says the system is slightly different to more traditional autonomous driving experiences, as it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand how human drivers react to driving on UK roads.

By adding these additional layers, supplied by technologies from Hitachi, the autonomous system is able to learn to drive more effectively. It also doesn't have to rely solely on the information supplied from the numerous sensors around the car.

The UK government, which has invested money into the £13.5m project, hailed the journey a success.

"Safely completing the longest autonomous drive in Britain is an incredible achievement for Nissan and the HumanDrive consortium. It is a huge step towards the rollout of driverless cars on UK streets," said UK business minister, Nadhim Zahawi.

As part of the launch I've been driven 13 miles in the "Grand Drive" car. That’s nothing new, autonomous cars have been around for some time now, but rather than the usual “motorway” test or roads that have perfect white lines to follow, this was through the English countryside.

For those not familiar with the UK, that means no road markings, barely a curb to notice, roundabouts, and small villages. Eek.

The route, which was actually part of the route Nissan took for it’s "Grand Drive" experiment, also involved a segment of the M1 motorway with us navigating through the usual barrage of roadworks and heavy traffic. Double eek.

The technology, which is as impressive in real life as it sounds, has been designed to prove a point. That all this is possible without the help of Californian companies and that the UK with it’s awkward and unforgiving roads can and are suitable for autonomous vehicles.

Of course nothing is perfect, there were a handful of times that our safety driver had to regain control thanks to delivery men abandoning cars in the middle of the road, but on the whole, the technology proved sound. You feel safe.

There are still many hurdles to overcome. Autonomous cars aren’t going to be on the streets tomorrow, but from both a technological and sociological approach, the Nissan-led consortium has shown that driverless cars in the UK are not only possible, they are here now.

The next step is seeing how we take the technology and make it more accessible to all of us.


In the near future, the company is hoping that the work on the HumanDrive project will also help it to further develop its ProPilot-assisted driving feature - as already found on the Nissan Juke, Leaf, Qashqai and X-Trail models in Europe and Japan. 

In Europe, ProPilot 1 offers basic functionality, including assistance with steering, acceleration and braking. In Japan, the ProPilot 2 system can already assist multi-lane motorway driving, with lane changes and the ability to overtake other vehicles.

Nissan hasn't said when it expects the HumanDrive programme to make it into its current range of cars, but is hoping that the lessons learned as part of the Grand Drive project will filter through to its ProPilot systems in the future.