Nissan's autonomous Leaf testbed, via the company
The past few decades of car innovation has been dedicated to removing drivers from the act of driving as much as possible, whether it be cruise control, better infotainment systems, or self-parking tech. Now Nissan has become the first major manufacturer to take things to their logical conclusion: The company announced it will have a self-driving car on the market by 2020.
Actually, the company expects to have more than one. "Nissan Motor Co. pledges that we will be ready to bring multiple affordable, energy efficient, fully autonomous-driving vehicles to the market by 2020," executive vice president Andy Palmer said in a presentation, according to the WSJ.
Simply put, it's a bold claim. Palmer said that Nissan will open up an autonomous car proving ground next year, which should help speed development. And Google's huge successes in the self-driving car realm suggest that developing the car isn't impossible. And Nissan says it's already put years of development work into its current testbed vehicle with the help of top universities around the country.
Heck, Nissan's test bed vehicle already works to a limited extent. With seven years of development, it hardly seems crazy that the company could have it developed to the point that it's ready for regular use. But to make one that people, who are notably fickle and irrational, can trust enough to buy? And one that they can afford? Now that's a challenge.
In Nissan's favor is the fact that drivers have been slowly conditioned over the years to expect that their cars can perform simple tasks for them. Adaptive cruise control, which slows and speeds up a car to maintain spacing, is a big one. The aforementioned automatic parking technology is another. But inviting drivers to give up the wheel completely is another step altogether.
The other problem is figuring out how a robot car can deal with human drivers. If every car was automated and communicating with set rules and standards, self-driving cars might be easier to engineers. But humans are unpredictable, reckless drivers, which makes teaching a car how to respond much more difficult. Also, in any crashes that arise, the focus is going to be on the automatic car, something Google first experienced two years ago.
That all adds up to a simple fact that selling a driverless car at a reasonable price is going to be far more difficult than selling a regular old compact. That's one factor that's hampered adoption of electric vehicles: The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are both more expensive than their comparable gas-powered competitors, which is a tough sell in the super-competive compact and mid-size sedan markets. It should come as little surprise that Nissan decided to take on the challenge, as CEO Carlos Ghosn is famously willing to gamble.
Back in 2007, Ghosn promised that Nissan would have an electric car on the roads by 2011; it launched in December 2010. The Leaf hasn't been a blockbuster success like Tesla's Model S, but it's done well, especially for a niche vehicle in a segment that had yet to be cracked. It's also excellent for Nissan's image, which more than makes up for its limited sales volume.
The company probably projects its autonomous vehicles—promising more than one model is almost recklessly bold, in case you're counting—to stand in a similar position. "First" is unbelievably powerful marketing in the auto world, and snatching up early adopter dollars while bringing an autonomous car to the history books is a great business move.
Of course, that's assuming Nissan can pull it off. There's a reason automakers aren't touting autonomous vehicles yet, even in concept form: there are a ton of variables and kinks to be sorted between now and then. Nissan thinks it can do it, and with seven years, solving the engineering problems doesn't seem like a huge issue. But convincing drivers to hand over the wheel is another problem altogether.