People driving around without their hands on the wheel is, unfortunately, nothing new. But now that person driving next to you while typing on a laptop might actually be legal—at least in Japan.
Nissan is one of the more ambitious automakers in the driverless car game, and this week took a notable step forward when its Leaf autonomous vehicle (can we call them AVs now?) testbed received license approval to drive on Japanese roads. That means Nissan will be able to collect real-life road data on its driver-assist system, as SVP Takao Asami notes in the brief video above. As for the license itself, Nissan has stated the year 2020 is its deadline for bringing multiple AVs to market.
The current test vehicle uses what Nissan calls its "Advanced Driver Assist System," which isn't fully autonomous, but rather can be thought of as a really advanced cruise control system. According to the company, the system can keep a car in its own lane, while automatically changing lanes to pass slower vehicles or prepare to exit a freeway, which it can also do automatically. Along with that, the car automatically slows for congestion, and—most impressively in my opinion—can automatically stop at red lights.
In other words, the car isn't fully automatic in that you can't simply type in a desination and have it do all the work, but the bulk of driving load is taken care of. Curiously, Nissan's goal appears to be to take sloppy human drivers out of the equation to eliminate road fatalities.
In its release announcing the license approval, the firm wrote that it's "developing Autonomous Drive as [Nissan] works to achieve virtually zero fatalities in accidents involving its vehicles." An admirable goal, and being able to say your cars have caused zero fatalities is certainly valuable marketing. On the other hand, if Nissan's hinting that it only plans to sell AVs in the future, drivers might balk, especially considering the company's motorsports heritage.
Regardless, the key point here is that Nissan's advanced driver assist appears to be the next step in autonomous vehicles before we have full robo-chaffeurs. Tesla's relying on a similar system to back up its announcement that it'll have self-driving cars on the market in three years; rather than drive door-to-door, Tesla's system will also rely on taking care of the basic, monotonous tasks of driving.
Google has previously been viewed as leading the AV charge, but it also appears to be focused on developing a fully autonomous vehicle, which will take longer to develop. Now, with a Leaf already road legal, it'd appear that Nissan has taken a lead in the AV race, but it's not clear how long it might take to get to market. Either way, it looks like we'll all be able to read books and play electric guitars in traffic within a few years. This time, it'll also be safe.