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Nissan’s big bet on artificial brains

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On 27 August, Nissan became the first major automaker to assign a timetable to its autonomy programme, announcing it would bring commercially viable autonomous vehicles to market by 2020.

An autonomous vehicle, capable of driving completely by itself, is nascent technology, and as such can be nerve-racking. But when the sci-fi overtones die down, what is left is a deeply tested artificial intelligence system that is much like a human driver – only safer.

Shifting from semi- to fully autonomous

There are many vehicles on the road that already incorporate some level of autonomy. Nissan's current Safety Shield tech suite incorporates systems such as adaptive cruise control – which can slow down or speed up a vehicle automatically by using sensors to determine to the location of other vehicles around it – and a 360-degree camera-view function. Many luxury sedans, including the Infiniti Q50, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Lincoln MKZ, apply corrective steering if they sense they are wandering out of their lane.

Moving from technologies like these to full autonomy is a huge step. But Dr Maarten Sierhuis,  research director at Nissan’s new tech facility in Silicon Valley, California, says the company and other automakers are already making inroads. He frames the next development phases as going "from safety technologies that intercept or warn the driver – and the driver being in control all of the time – to a technology that basically can make decisions like a human in any driving situation."

Nissan opened its Silicon Valley research centre in February, and collaborates with teams at its corporate base as well as research universities in Japan to develop the autonomous driving initiative. The company is building a dedicated proving ground in Japan, which is expected to be finished in 2014.

Building on layers of artificial intelligence

Before it commercialises autonomous vehicles, Nissan must build a layered artificial intelligence system that controls the vehicle, senses external information and observes and perceives its surroundings, Sierhuis said. These vehicles will need to gather information and make predictions based on what they see, just like humans use their eyes and ears to gather information to be processed.

Sierhuis framed the advantage of autonomous systems over human drivers in terms of their dispassion. Humans, he said, drive "in anticipation of something that might happen.” The benefit, then, of autonomous vehicles “is the speed at which [they] can make those decisions." And the difference is substantial. His research deals in milliseconds. Autonomous vehicle software processes multiple hypotheses quickly, weighing any number of risk factors and potential outcomes, before deciding and acting on just one. This is not unlike humans, of course, but it is done much faster.

"Everybody understands that it's not an easy task, but we are committed to it and we've been working on it for a while. And we think we can crack that," Sierhuis said.

Exploring new territory

It's not just the technical hurdles Nissan will have to overcome; social and regulatory challenges lay ahead as well. “There are so many independent factors that play a role here," Sierhuis said. The difficulties will be overcome, he said, only through rigorous on-road testing, so drivers and regulators can see its benefits – indeed, the advantages.

For all its talk about autonomy, Nissan is still a company that produces hardcore sports cars like the GT-R and Z. Engineering autonomy into cars will not necessarily mean engineering out enjoyment, a challenge that all automakers must reckon with. "I think people like the excitement of driving and I think people like the pleasure of driving, so I think that won't change," Dr Sierhuis said. He frames autonomous driving as just one more technology, like direct fuel injection or run-flat tires, which make driving better. "I think people will like it, people will use it and people will enjoy driving more because of it. And as a consequence, we will be safer on the road. That, I think, is a great thing."

Engineering autonomy into cars will not necessarily mean engineering out enjoyment.