It may seem akin to an alliance between a railway and a submarine manufacturer, but Japanese automaker Nissan has signed a pact with US space agency NASA to develop self-driving cars. The five-year agreement announced last week covers a partnership on research and development of autonomous vehicle systems and their commercial applications.
The agreement involves scientists and engineers at Nissan's US Silicon Valley Research Center and NASA's Ames Research Center, also located in Silicon Valley. Though such a partnership may not seem logical, NASA has, in fact, been in the car business for over forty years, ever since the first Lunar Rover went for a spin during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. Since then, the space agency has been developing more sophisticated versions for lunar and planetary excursions, including the nuclear-powered Curiosity Mars rover, which is essentially a semi-autonomous 4X4 with six wheels.
"The work of NASA and Nissan – with one directed to space and the other directed to earth, is connected by similar challenges," says Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan Motor Company. "The partnership will accelerate Nissan's development of safe, secure and reliable autonomous drive technology that we will progressively introduce to consumers beginning in 2016 up to 2020."
Nissan says that the partnership will focus on the development of autonomous driving systems, human-machine interfaces, network-based applications, and software analysis that could have uses both on Earth and in space. The ultimate goal is to produce zero-emission proof-of-concept vehicles capable of self-navigation in difficult situations, such as the mountains of Mars or driving cross town in the rush hour.