Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn: Self-Driving LEAF May Be Sooner Than You Think

By · October 04, 2013

It’s not every day the CEO of a big company publicly tests out a product prototype, and then talks about it openly on camera. But that’s exactly what CEO Carlos Ghosn did last week at the CEATEC Japan 2013 Convention, a major electronics show. Moreover, the CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance said that its self-driving cars could reach the market sooner than 2020, as previously promised.

To show his enthusiasm for Nissan’s autonomous car program, the Nissan CEO stepped behind the wheel of a prototype autonomous LEAF at the conference. Although Mr. Ghosn was in the driver’s seat, he wasn’t the one doing the driving: the car drove iteself.

“I didn’t drive anything. I was just sitting in the car,” Ghosn said in a video released on Nissan’s Global Media website. “This test is proving to me that, first, we have advanced a lot because I tested the prototypes two years ago, which were way less advanced than this one.”

Nissan executives have claimed that the autonomous technology could achieve the company's goals for “zero fatalities,” as a development path that runs parallel with its goal of “zero emissions” from electric cars.

Capable of following a route, slowing down at stop signs and lights, and being able to take basic evasive action in an emergency, the autonomous LEAF Ghosn sat in could easily be mistaken for a production-ready car from the outside. The enabling technology is the use of 3D laser scanners, which takes autonomy a step beyond radar, sonar and video sensors.

Nissan admits that there’s a big difference between letting a self-driving car tackle a predetermined course on a test track than letting a vehicle lose on a public highway, but Ghosn was bullish about his experience and the potential for a self-driving car later this decade.

“2020, in my opinion, is going to be the latest because we are under pressure from a lot of competition,” Ghosn confided. “Obviously, we’ve seen the reaction from the public. There is a lot of attention and thirst from everybody about the automated car.”

EVs and Autonomy

Many major automakers, including General Motors, Volkswagen, Ford and Mercedes are taking decisive steps toward offering autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Tesla Motors is also planning to fit its own electric cars with “autopilot” features by 2020.

“The public sense that this is something of the future, something that they need and that they will use,” Ghosn explained. “Now the pressure is on us because we have launched this way of attention about the technology. The pressure is on to make sure that we are bringing the first cars on the market.”

With more than six years before its self-imposed deadline to bring an automated car to market, Nissan has time to refine its self-driving strategy. Most analysts believe that there will not be a single feature or date of introduction for autonomous vehicles, but rather a continuous evolution of driver-assist functions, such as adaptive cruise control, lane warning and self-parking. Nissan engineers believe that electric cars are particularly well suited to autonomous driving, because electric powertrains have a high degree of software control.

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