The Future of Cars: Autonomous...and Electric

By · August 30, 2013

Self-driving Nissan LEAF

This self-driving Nissan LEAF can intelligently judge who goes first at an intersection. Nissan is commercializing the cars by 2020. (Nissan photo)

The future of the automobile is driver-free—and it’s electric, too. When Nissan announced in rather dramatic fashion that it would produce a commercial autonomous vehicle by 2020, the company showed off a prototype loaded down with cameras, laser scanners, radar and sonar sensors. It could have been any car in Nissan’s stable, but it was a LEAF battery car.

“Electric cars are well suited to autonomous drive (AD) because all actuators are already electrified with precise controllability,” said Nissan spokesman Brian Brockman. “Of course, AD is also technically possible when paired with vehicles powered by internal combustion or hybrid powertrains.”

It Knows the Rules of the Road

As the New York Times pointed out, "Nissan's introduction of the fully electric LEAF was a bold move. An autonomous-drive vehicle takes the company's boldness to a new level."

The autonomous LEAF offered passenger service to journalists at the Miramar Air Force base in Orange County, California this week. Using its onboard technology, the LEAF approached an intersection and—versed in the rules of the road—waited for a car that had arrived there first to go through before it proceeded. The LEAF merged into traffic, and maneuvered around cones set up to simulate a construction zone. And it did all this without the big, protruding antennas and visible cameras that make some autonomous cars look like moon landers.

A team at Oxford University is also using a LEAF as the basis for its autonomous car, saying the technology for hands-free operation (as in the photo below) will eventually cost only a couple of hundred dollars. The Oxford car is capable to detecting pedestrians in the roadway and stopping safely. It's also adept at dealing with adverse weather conditions.

Self-driving Nissan LEAF

Oxford's autonomous LEAF looks out for pedestrians, and reads the weather report. (Oxford University photo)

Nissan’s Andy Palmer, the global product chief, calls autonomous cars “the next frontier for the auto industry,” and he’s not alone. From a science fiction dream just a year or two ago, the self-driving car is moving to concrete reality very quickly. Another big partisan is Alberto Broggi, a computer engineering professor at the University of Parma in Italy and an IEEE senior member.

They're Coming

Like Nissan, Broggi is convinced that autonomous cars are imminent, and to prove it he recently had an autonomous Hyundai (with 10 cameras and five laser scanners) drive through heavy traffic in downtown Parma, negotiating without incident freeways, rural roads and the central city corridor.

Broggi told me his cars use very low-cost off-the-shelf sensors, and don’t need to be guided by technology along the roadway—it’s all mounted on the car. “By 2020,” he said, “autonomous technology could be affordable for some high-end cars, but not for every car. You have to start somewhere.”

Not the First Cars

But Broggi isn’t convinced that plugs and autonomy will necessarily go together, at least not initially. “There’s no specific reason why the first electric cars will be electric,” he said. “We’re putting together two challenges at the same time [if we do that]. As a carmaker, I would personally keep things separate: electric cars is one, and autonomous is the other. Each has its on issues (autonomy the first and robustness the second). Eventually one day the two things will merge, but as a first step I don't think so.”

Fair enough, but consider this self-driving scenario. Your EV drops you off at the front door, then heads to the garage where it neatly parks over a wireless charging hotspot. The next morning, it’s fully fueled and ready to go. Would that work with a gas or hybrid car? Even if you had a gas station in your garage, would you trust the automation to precisely insert a hose full of highly volatile liquid?

Google Self-Driving EVs?

My case for autonomous EVs was bolstered by a report this week that transportation and delivery giant Uber would buy 2,500 Google-branded driverless electric cars. “Uber has committed to invest up to $375 million for a fleet of Google’s GX3200 vehicles,” the TechCrunch post said. “The GX3200, which was shown off earlier this year at the Detroit Auto Show, is Google’s latest effort to produce a fully electric, fully autonomous vehicle.”

The battery vehicles “are the company’s third generation of autonomous driving cars, but the first to be approved for commercial use in the U.S.,” the post said. “The deal marks the largest single capital investment that Uber has made to date, and is also the first enterprise deal that Google has struck for its new line of driverless vehicles.”

Wow, exciting. Then I noticed that the date on the story was July 25, 2023. Oh well. But if even parodies are making the case for plug-in autonomous cars, we’re on the right track.


· · 4 years ago

I think that autonomous cars on the highway makes total sense. But trying to do this on any kind of road is not helpful.

All cars being electric - *that* makes all the sense in the world!


· · 4 years ago

"There’s no specific reason why the first electric cars will be electric"

Um, because they are? Isn't being an electric a specific reason to be electric? ;)

Am I the only one who doesn't want my car to be automated? This frightens me a little. I don't want to not be able to drive my car. Or maybe I'm just being a control freak?

· · 4 years ago


I don't think "manual override" is a feature they'd forgo, so no worries there.

What I think if more interesting is the prospect that I could drive to work, then tell my car to drive itself to a service station for inspection/maintenance and have it drive itself back when it's done.

Or if someone needs to borrow my car, or needs a ride from the airport or whatever, I could send it unattended to where they are and it'll pick them up, take them wherever, and drive back.

THAT would be awesome. Would require laws to allow unattended operation, but I can dream!

· · 4 years ago


Maybe you're right. Or maybe you're wrong - maybe it will turn into a situation where a human driver actually is too dangerous to allow. What if AD allowed cars to safely drive 75mph along the highway, only feet from the next car? No way would a human operator be able to drive amongst those cars.

Then again, I'm still peeved that I can hardly find a new car that comes with a stick shift. Part of me is saddened by the fact that EVs will never have a stick shift. I am definitely not a "cars are for A-to-B" person. I love driving, and hate that we keep progressing towards cars that remove us more and more from the joy of connecting with the road.

· · 4 years ago


I believe the new Lotus based (Roadster Replacement) Detroit Electric has a stick shift. All you need is a spare $135,000 - they are going to be made in Holland initially (how come no article on this yet?)

@Brian Schwerdt

You are not the only one with concerns about autonomous driving. I'm more concerned about the companies promoting this.

Questions one might ask:

1). Why did the head of Facebook call his users "Dumb Fxcks"?

2). Since the military is EXTREMELY interested in Autonomous vehicles and automotons in general, what exactly is their relationship to Google and Boston Dynamics (maker of BIG DOG, and the 30 mph chetah robot - in case you can outrun that, they've got a nice 7 ft humanoid robot also).

· · 4 years ago

We are inured to mass slaughter on our roads every year, which in the twentieth century killed more Americans than all her wars.

Nor is this a last-century problem.
In 2012 34,000 Americans died in traffic accidents, with countless more severely injured.
With eyes literally in their backsides, automated cars can do much, much better than that.

340 deaths a year would be probable, and I would be very surprised if the total were as much as 3,400 a year.
We simply would not accept an automated system which killed anything like the number of people which people driving do.

As soon as there is a practical alternative, it would seem to me that not risking life and limb when one goes out of the house as a pedestrian, cyclist or motorist would be a boon.

· · 4 years ago

The idea of autonomous cars is really hot right now, but I am a MAJOR skeptic and doubter on this one. I can see semi-autonomous cruise systems like Chevy is looking into, but anything more I think just won't work. For the military, sure. For commercial use on public roads, no way. The root of the problem is that roads are built for humans, not computers. We are asking computers to drive on roads built for human senses. It's too problematic. I like to compare the idea to using speech-into-text applications. Computers trying to do what was intended for humans. The result? Extremely sloppy. Accidents will happen. Drivers will blame the car companies. Liability nightmares for everyone.

The only way it could work is if we started retrofitting highways specifically for computer drivers (with specific sensors and such embedded in the roads), and those roads might would need to be further limited only to cars with computer drive systems (to ensure the cars can reliably work together). The whole thing needs to work like a computer system. That could actually work.

· · 4 years ago

I hear you, Skotty. We've got the RAV4 EV that has an internal computer monitoring the charging, which is permanently glitching and prevents charging on the last day of months that have 31 days. Nobody at Toyota's programming/servicing end of things knows how or even cares how to fix it.

Are we to expect an autonomous self-driving car of the future that is totally glitchless? I don't think it will happen. At best, some of these cars will refuse to drive themselves on the 31st and not allow a manual override. As worst, glitches will cause catastrophic accidents that could have been prevented if an alert human behind the wheel was in control. Let's encourage the auto companies to sink R&D dollars into better batteries, not this.

· · 4 years ago

@Benjamin Nead

".....Are we to expect an autonomous self-driving car of the future that is totally glitchless? I don't think it will happen. ...."

Automotive News (Crain) is reporting Daimler has successfully tested a 100 km trip of a modified Mercedes 500S, including traffic circles, pedestrians, and city traffic
There was a driver in front of the wheel, but they claim he never touched it.

· · 4 years ago

@Bill Howland,

That's a great demonstration, but hardly exhaustive. What happens when a ball rolls into the road. Will the car know that a rolling ball is often followed by a running child? Or will it swerve to the right, to avoid the ball? What about a squirrel? A deer? The human brain is amazingly flexible and responsive. Sure, people make poor choices sometimes. But the bigger problem is distraction, and I guess that's a major advantage of an automated car - it actually CAN safely send a TXT message while driving!

Also, I bet the RAV4 EV engineers tested the charging timer under a slew of conditions, all of which worked (although a good engineer knows to look for the edge cases, such as the 31st of the month).

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