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Nissan Autonomous LEAF sets me dreaming of what could be in China

August 23, 2013

I have ridden in what should be China’s future. It would save countless hours stuck in traffic and countless lives.

A few days ago I was at the Nissan 360 media event here in California at the lovely Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach.  Automakers always host media at super-lux places.  That way at least we are in a good mood when we check out their vehicles, the thinking must be.   I had my own bungalow.  Larger than an apartment I lived in back in Hong Kong.  But I digress.

One of the vehicles available to drive, or in this case ride in, was the autonomous LEAF electric vehicle. http://www.nissanusa.com/electric-cars/leaf/?next=header.vehicles.postcard.vlp.image     It looks a lot like the regular old LEAF, but it has 6 sensors arrayed at strategic points on the exterior.  Why did they chose the LEAF as the first autonomous vehicle, I asked the Nissan engineer who was not going to drive the vehicle.  “The technology is okay for an internal combustion engine car,” he said, “but the electric vehicle is easier to control because the motor is more reactive. It is a better combination.”

autonomous leaf

For those of you dreaming of well, dreaming, away a trip to the office in traffic-chocked Beijing or Los Angeles, forget it.  The “driver” does have to at least be alert – in this autonomous vehicle.  How about drunk drivers, I asked? Not in this version, but Nissan is working on technology that will detect if a driver is drunk, said the Nissan engineer.

Still, the LEAF Autonomous Vehicle detected and read speed limit signs,  avoided a large truck entering traffic in front of us, a pedestrian stepping out in front of us, and a lot of road furniture including cones and barriers,  and of course detected a red light and stop sign.   The valet function was pretty cool as well.  The “valet” had the key fob.  The “driver” simply left the car with the valet, he pressed the key fob, the car went and found a spot and parked itself.  Then, when the driver returned the valet pressed the key fob and the car returned.  How cool is that?

This version is not ready for prime-time. Among other improvements needed, said the Japanese engineer, is sensors with finer resolution.  The current sensors on the LEAF only detect at 30 to 40 centimeters, he said. Nissan wants plus or minus 1 centimeter.  “We are looking for a partner” with that technology, he said.

The autonomous vehicle is “an important step in a world of zero fatalities,” said Roel De-Vries, Nissan’s global corporate vice president of marketing.  Nissan’s has its twin zeros marketing thing – zero emissions and zero fatalities.  As I sat in the Nissan LEAF and it drove though the highway and urban courses, I got to thinking “Gee, this would be really great in China!” It is about as far from zero fatalities as any country in the world. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/01/18/a-surprising-map-of-countries-that-have-the-most-traffic-deaths/

Imagine it.  Cars would actually stop at stop signs and red lights.  They would know how to merge on to a highway. They wouldn’t feel obligated to cut in front of you just because that space was there and needed to be filled in.  They would stop before they hit a pedestrian or bicycle or another car. They would know how to park.  It gave me shivers.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said autonomous vehicles will be in Nissan showrooms by 2020.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/danbigman/2013/01/14/driverless-cars-coming-to-showrooms-by-2020-says-nissan-ceo-carlos-ghosn/ Please get them to showrooms in China sooner.  I didn’t ask if China was a target market, but no automaker can bypass China with a significant new product, so assume the autonomous vehicles will be there, too.  China is one of the top two countries in the world for traffic fatalities; India is right up there, as well.  The Chinese authorities put the number of traffic deaths in China in 2012 in the tens of thousands, but even the Chinese press says that number is low.  A more dependable source, Bloomberg Philanthropies, puts the number at 220,000 annually.   Bottom line: A lot of people die in cars or because of cars in China each year.

If you live there, you know why. Most Chinese are first-generation drivers. Chinese driving schools don’t teach defensive driving.  Road rules, including stop signs,  are treated more as suggestions than rules. After all, if one stops at a stop sign too long, someone else might get to a some goal that the driver desires first.  In China, it’s all about taking advantage of opportunity when it presents itself.

Nissan has said it may produce the LEAF in China.  Please do, and please make it an autonomously-driven LEAF! But also produce an autonomously-driven version of your best-selling model in China.   And price it so people will buy it. And make it impossible to override the system at stop signs! Otherwise it will be useless…..

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Clifford permalink
    August 23, 2013 7:27 am

    Alysha, This is very interesting. Keep up the good work. I really like your ChinaEV Blog. Mark

  2. Rob Earley permalink
    August 23, 2013 11:33 pm

    I have a question about parking by automated cars in cities like Beijing. Beijing lacks about 2 million parking spots, probably more, and so we see that cars typically park illegally everywhere, especially in residential areas. a) Would the leaf be allowed, by programming, to park illegally, and b) who would be liable if it were? Or would cars just keep circling until they found legal parking spots in Shijiazhuang suburbs or something?

    • August 23, 2013 11:37 pm

      You ask difficult questions, grasshopper. The LEAF or any autonomous vehicle would likely only park in legal spots. (Many other automakers are working on autonomous vehicles, as is Google.) The owner probably wouldn’t be able to re-program it. So owners of AVs would likely end up out in Shijiazhuang more than they would like. On the plus side, no one would be killed as the car circled in its search. Actually, if it were a Google autonomous vehicle perhaps it could google search for a space….

  3. August 23, 2013 11:48 pm

    Nice job, as usual, Alysha. This is where we’re going in automotive transportation, much to the chagrin of many of our colleagues whose identities are wrapped in their supposed finesse behind the wheel. We should enjoy the drive while it lasts..before the cars start driving us. Keep it up, Lady.–Warren Brown

  4. August 27, 2013 12:07 am

    According to the Chinese Ministry of Transport, in 2012 there were 60,000 traffic fatalities and, 204,000 accidents.
    Although it might ensure safer roads in China as its new driver population emerges, I shudder to think of being denied the pure fun of making every turn of the wheel on my own___ or at least having the option to do so.
    Maybe a tougher driving test would do the trick.

    • September 3, 2013 6:55 pm

      Those figures are widely seen as inaccurate and very low, even by the Chinese press. Actually teaching defensive driving would help — Chinese driving schools do not do so. Have you driven in China? I don’t think it can be described as “fun”….

  5. September 28, 2013 4:41 am

    Alysha, I can see your passion and concern about china from every line of your words, really appreciate it as a Chinese. On the issue of autonomous driving, I think it is not something I’m absolutely looking forward to. I’m a car fan though I do appreciate car tech development and fatality/emission reduction and stuff like that, but the bottom line here is: with cars that drive by themselves, they are not cars anymore. The whole concept of car would be changed. To me, car means passion, mobility, freedom, fun and speed. So that’s the reason why I’m always not so into this topic. I’d rather prefer electric drive stuff.
    For the way Chinese people drive, I should say you are absolutely correct. I love this quote of you:
    In China, it’s all about taking advantage of opportunity when it presents itself.
    Actually, this sentence is not only for the way people drive, but also for the way people live their life. Why so ambitious? Why always in a hurry? I don’t know. But that’s how people roll in china. You go there and stay for a while and you’ll become one of them, believe me! I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, Alysha.
    For the manufacturing of Leaf, I’m still waiting for the rolling off of the Qichen (启辰) e30, aka the Chinese JV version of Leaf. I think the rebadge Leaf is waiting for nothing but a perfect policy/market timing. For now, I really don’t think the consumers are ready, either financially nor emotionally. China is lagging so much in respect of car culture, ecofriendliness and all than the US. If nobody can convince the people EV is as good as gas cars, nobody wants to make the first move.

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