Nissan Debuts ProPilot as Similar Tesla System Scrutinized

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Nissan Introduces Autonomous Car
  • Serena minivan on sale next month handles some highway driving
  • Nissan to ensure dealers inform drivers of ProPilot’s limits

Nissan Motor Co. introduced driver-assist features that enable its newest minivan to handle some highway driving on its own, just as a similar system from electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc. comes under scrutiny following a number of crashes.

The technology, available in the new Serena model on sale in Japan next month, renders the minivan capable of accelerating, braking and navigating highway stop-and-go traffic in a single lane. Called ProPilot, the system sends warnings when drivers take their hands off the wheel and will eventually disable if the prompts are ignored for a few seconds.

Japan’s Transport Ministry said last week dealers selling cars with driver-assist functions should remind consumers of their limits, noted Tesla’s Autopilot system isn’t fully autonomous and said drivers should be responsible in the event of accidents. The U.S.’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to announce guidelines as soon as this month that will set some parameters for self-driving cars.

A Nissan Serena minivan equipped with ProPilot self-driving technology. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
A Nissan Serena minivan equipped with ProPilot self-driving technology. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

“The point is it’s not fully autonomous driving, but driver assistance technology, so it can’t handle everything for you,” Hideyuki Sakamoto, a Nissan executive vice president, said Wednesday during a briefing in Yokohama.

For a QuickTake guide on driverless cars, click here.

Regulators are scrutinizing Tesla’s similar Autopilot technology after an Ohio man died when he and his Model S sedan failed to react to an 18-wheeler crossing a Florida road in May. Nissan’s Sakamoto said while he didn’t understand Tesla’s Autopilot well, in a similar situation, ProPilot “should be able to function correctly.”

Pennsylvania State Police have since cited the driver of a Tesla Model X involved in a July 1 crash that may have involved Autopilot technology for careless driving, according to a report released Monday. Another Tesla driver has told Montana police that Autopilot was engaged during an accident that occurred on Saturday. The carmaker confirmed Autopilot was engaged when the car drove off the side of the road, though the driver didn’t put his hands on the wheel in spite of the vehicle alerting him to do so, Tesla said Tuesday.

Managing Expectations

“The challenge for automakers is to clearly articulate those limitations and manage the expectations of their customers,” said Jeremy Carlson, a Los Angeles-based analyst for IHS Automotive. “That’s only going to become more difficult when rapidly evolving technology means a Nissan may behave differently than a Tesla or Toyota in the same situation.”

Nissan’s release of ProPilot follows more premium brands including Tesla, Daimler AG and Volvo Car AB, whose technologies allow their vehicles to handle more complicated traffic conditions. Nissan plans to extend the availability of ProPilot to Europe with the Qashqai sport utility vehicle, as well as to the U.S. and China.

Nissan's ProPilot technology.
Nissan's ProPilot technology.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. all plan to introduce vehicles capable of driving themselves on highways by 2020. The Renault-Nissan Alliance has said it plans to launch more than 10 vehicles with autonomous-drive technology in the next four years.

Step-by-Step

Nissan plans to add autonomous-driving functions step-by-step, enabling cars to change lanes on their own in 2018 and traverse urban roads, including intersections, by 2020. 

The ProPilot system available on the Serena uses a monocular camera supplied by ZF TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. to detect obstacles and relies on a system jointly developed with Mobileye NV to process images, said Kiwamu Aoyanagi, a Nissan engineer. Pricing details will be announced later, he said.

Nissan will make sure dealers will inform drivers of its technology’s limits and ensure they understand it’s not a self-driving car, spokesman Nicholas Maxfield said.

Nissan has been “clearer than most” in outlining how it intends to bring technology to market and describing precisely what it will do, IHS Automotive’s Carlson said. “That’s something that many mass market competitors have not always communicated very clearly.”

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