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.

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