I am sitting next to a man in a Nissan Leaf. The man tries to run over pedestrians. If you think that’s mean, then the three black clad guys who are hiding behind a row of parked cars will disgust you. Their job is to push a pedestrian in front of an oncoming car.
We drive down the road. Suddenly, a man appears behind some parked cars. He crosses the road in front of us. In a few heartbeats, he will be dead. My driver keeps his foot on the gas, takes his hands off the wheel. He grins.
This is part of a demonstration of safety technology under development at Nissan. We are on their test course in Oppama, Japan, near Yokohama. The LEAF has instrumentation like a fighter jet. Multiple screens, interfaced to an array of sensors, millimeter RADAR, laser scanners, cameras. The job of the computer is to detect an obstacle, and to decide whether the car can be braked in time, or whether it should be steered around the obstacle.
They call it “Autonomous Emergency Steering System.” A computer processes the inputs of a camera, of three RADAR sensors and five laser scanners. If it senses the risk of a collision, it displays to the driver the direction that the vehicle should be steered. If the driver does not immediately steer in that direction, the system takes over and automatically steers the vehicle around the obstacle.
The system is not commercially available yet, but Nissan is working hard on its commercialization. A Nissan engineer tells me that they will have to bring the number of sensors down, and possibly eliminate the laser scanners to make the system more affordable.
While the men that lurk behind the parked car get ready to push another pedestrian in front of a car (luckily, the pedestrian is a dummy, mounted on a long pole that is attached to a pushcart) I am shown other, related technology. One is steering by wire.
Instead of connecting the steering wheel via a steering column to the wheels, steering inputs are transmitted via electronic signals. Servos do the steering. On a test drive, I notice that driving down a rough road suddenly does no longer punish my wrist – that undesired feedback is taken out of the loop. Welcome cues are transmitted back to the steering wheel via a servo.
I am told that electronic steering is safer. It prevents overcompensation, for instance during crosswinds. .A camera mounted above the rearview mirror allows the system to analyze the road ahead. Lane departure is not only recognized, but gently corrected. This system will first be available in a future Infiniti model.
Currently, it works with belts and suspenders. There are three redundant computers. And there still is a steering column, just in case. Normally, the steering column is out of the game and as useful as an appendix. Should something fail, then a clutch reconnects the steering to the wheel, and you can steer like in the olden days.