Nissan CEO Ghosn talks autonomous drive, AI for cars, and turning over a new LEAF
During Nissan's keynote speech at CES in Las Vegas, CEO Carlos Ghosn outlined the new technologies that will underpin the company's self-driving cars and future mobility efforts. During his speech, Ghosn outlined a new NASA-derived in-vehicle artificial intelligence system for autonomous vehicles, a partnership with Microsoft for connected cars, and revealed a new Nissan LEAF electric car with autonomous capabilities is on the way.
The "Nissan Intelligent Mobility" (NIM) initiative is broken into three parts: Intelligent Driving, Intelligent Power, and Intelligent Integration. The first focuses on in-vehicle technologies for automated and semi-autonomous driving and safety technologies, while the Power aspect is focused on reducing emissions and improving efficiency through a diverse range of vehicle propulsion technologies. Finally, Intelligent Integration focuses on vehicle-to-world communications and allowing people inside the Nissan vehicle to connect to the world around them.
The latest advances in these parts of the NIM initiative is spearheaded by Nissan's Seamless Autonomous Mobility system, or SAM. Developed in partnership with NASA's Ames Research Center, SAM is a way to smooth over the transition from autonomous driving to driver control. It learns from the environment and the driver to become better at handling unforeseen situations, such as construction zones, accidents, and other obstacles. The basis for the SAM software was NASA's Visual Environment for Remote Virtual Exploration (VERVE) used in interplanetary robots.
Through a live feed demonstration from the Ames Research labs, Nissan showed the system in action. When confronted with a situation in which the car could not easily determine what to do, it signalled the driver to take over and make the decision. The SAM system learned from that behavior and would eventually be able to navigate a similar situation itself.
The goal with SAM is not necessarily to always replace the driver, but to instead create a near-seamless integration of driver and autonomous vehicle. This way, the autonomous drive is smart enough to realize when it's not able to do something and ask for help. It instead asks for assistance from the driver and, if necessary, makes a safe stop until the driver can take over.
Without a driver, the system can also connect to a command center and receive instructions on how to circumnavigate an obstruction. Other vehicles in the area that are also communicating with SAM and the central system can also learn from the change and, if confronted with it, take up what the previous car did as an optional alternative. Sensors on board the vehicle, of course, also show the autonomous drive's computer if something has changed that might make the new option no longer viable.
Ultimately, the autonomous systems and the central hub to which Nissan has access to teach other vehicles, will result in smarter, more capable autonomous cars. NASA hopes to use the technology to improve upon unmanned aircraft systems.
Driverless Commercial Vehicles
Nissan's next step with autonomous vehicles is in realm of commercial vehicles. The Renault-Nissan Alliance has teamed up with Japanese internet company DeNA to test driverless commercial vehicles, with testing of those vehicles to begin this year in designated areas of Japan. Nissan hopes to expand these tests to the Tokyo metro area by 2020.
The tests will be conducted using electric vehicles provided by Nissan and coincide with similar testing already underway in Europe, the United States, and China.
A New LEAF
Nissan has always used its LEAF electric car as a test bed and showcase of its autonomous driving tech. Mr. Ghosn promised that a new iteration of the Nissan LEAF will be coming very soon and will include ProPILOT, the company's latest autonomous drive technology bundle, which will make the car capable of driving itself in single-lane highway situations. The car is promised "in the near future," which we'd take to mean sometime this year.
As vehicles become more adept at driving themselves, in-vehicle personal assistants are also something many automakers are talking about. For Nissan, a partnership with Microsoft to use Cortana as a PA is underway.
Using the Microsoft Connected Vehicle Platform and the Cortana interface, Nissan will collaborate with Microsoft to build more connected car apps and options that will be used across the Renault-Nissan alliance's brands globally. Other integrated options include a partnership with Bose to minimize sound-based distractions from the vehicle, its entertainment systems, and more.
That Bose system features integrated headrest-mounted speakers that project sounds around the driver. This allows prompts and warnings to be sent to intuitive points in order to maximize reaction time. Thus, a blind spot alert from the left side of the vehicle would project to the driver's left ear as if coming from that blind spot, while phone calls can be directed to one person in the car without others being as distracted by the conversation.
Ghosn finished the conference by announcing the company's new partnership with 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), a global non-profit. Nissan becomes the first automotive partner with the organization whose goal is to help cities become resilient against physical, social, and economic challenges. Specifically, Nissan will be helping to lay city-based groundwork for autonomous and electric vehicles.