By on October 17, 2012

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.

I brace for impact, for blood and guts. But someone intervenes. Something intervenes. The LEAF brakes, then steers past the pedestrian. All with the grinning driver’s hands off the wheel.

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.

 

 

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21 Comments on “How Nissan Kept Me From Running Over A Guy...”


  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    Were pedestrians being run over by cars a big problem in Japan?

    They should put the system on our ‘busway’ bus (buses that travel on a special lane on the road), as they run over pedestrians and motorcycle riders on a shockingly regular basis.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      I don’t know about the statistics of it, but drunken pedestrians stumbling about would be an issue after 8 in the evening on weekdays in just about every Japanese urban area.

      At some point, the level of pedestrian safety which can be built into cars must reach a limit, but it is impressive to see how creative things are getting. I can’t wait to read of journalistic complaints about steering feel with electronic steering. Just imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth for the first Porsche to use it…

    • 0 avatar
      daveainchina

      Not sure it’s a big issue there, but it’s a huge issue in China. This would be very welcome technology here.

  • avatar
    nvdw

    Another plus of the electronic steering is that by using these two electric motors is that there is more flexibility in using different steering angles for each wheel.

    What surprises me most is the coverage of this news by Nissan itself. You’ve touched on the subject of the Nissan Newsroom before but it makes me wonder why no other manufacturer has followed up on this. It almost makes your trip to Oppama obsolete ;)

  • avatar
    TheEndlessEnigma

    Steering by wire, more stuff to go wrong in the car. Unfortunately, cars are not line airliners (which are fly by wire), the car receives nowhere the level of maintenance required for systems such as these to be reliable. I would wonder, if a automobile cannot be engineered with simple systems like power widows, power door locks, windshield wipers, water pumps, A/C compressors etc that do not fail and require replacement over the life of a vehicle, how can we expect the systems required to implement something as complicated (and a VITAL function of the car) such as this with the 100% required reliability?

    Call me old fashioned, but implementation of this into production model vehicles would steer (no pun intended) me away from considering those models for purchase.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      It doesn’t need to be 100% reliable, what it needs is to fail into a safe condition. Right now, electric power steering racks are set up so that if the electric motor fails there is still a mechanical connection to the steering rack, and you can still steer (with difficulty, of course, but no more difficulty than a traditional hydraulic power steering rack that fails).

      On the engineering side, this becomes a huge pain in the ass when there’s also a requirement that the driver is able to adjust the steering column position a bunch of different ways, which is more or less expected now for all but the cheapest cars. It would be far easier to just put a rotational sensor on the end of the steering column and wire that to the motor on the rack, or something similar. But they don’t do that, for exactly the reason you already described.

      • 0 avatar
        monomille

        ADM Rickover would never allow “cruise control” for submarines because he felt that the operator became dependent on the automated mode and would not react quickly enough when the inevitable rare failure occurred. Of course, diving below design depth with a car is not an issue.

    • 0 avatar
      Darkhorse

      Agreed. My concern is electronic parts obsolescence. I had a 92 Porsche Carrera that suffered a climate control unit failure. Turns out the micro chips used in the unit (Siemens) had not been made since the late 90s. Screwed.

  • avatar
    cugrad

    I suspect that the lawyers will have a lot of consternation at the car making emergency steering corrections by itself. It seems like there are too many scenarios where the computer-driven steering input could make things worse based on its limited set of information.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      I hear a lot of bellyaching about ESP type systems, but have yet to hear/see/read about any of these systems failing and killing anyone. Actually, there seems to be a correlation between their implementation and a drop in single vehicle accidents. I have way more faith in a billion dollar company looking to NOT get sued than Shirley McTextalot, to be totally honest. The levels to which they test these things and have to demonstrate their safety is pretty mind boggling. Fully electric steering would be no different than DBW throttle control (aside from the issue of feedback).

      • 0 avatar
        cugrad

        I was mostly concerned about damage the sort of scenario given by Ex Radio Operator below. I don’t doubt that they can design a system to reliably avoid the first incident. However, if that avoidance maneuver injures someone who wouldn’t have otherwise been injured, it seems prone for litigation.

  • avatar
    Ex Radio Operator

    How is this system going to decide whether to kill the pedestrian or steer you head on into the eighteen wheeler going the other way?

    • 0 avatar
      N8iveVA

      yeah i was wondering the same thing. I assume that the sensors “see” the vehicle coming in the other lane and weighs the threats and decides to go with the smaller threat and runs over the pedestrian. (?)

    • 0 avatar
      rodface

      The system would probably be programmed to not steer the car out of the lane precisely for that reason. I assume the car will steer around the obstacle as best it can within the confines of the lane.

      I need to remind myself of the importance of maintaining a safe following distance. It’s of little use for a car to automatically deftly swerve around obstacles if the one behind it doesn’t do the same.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    Yet another step closer to the ‘robot car’ of the near future.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I pray for computer driven cars. All of the Best and Brightest are far better drivers than any computer will ever be. But, 95% of the drivers on the road today, aren’t paying attention, and don’t have their cars under good control. Please replace them with machines. We will all live safer longer lives.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    One of the most challenging aspects of a self-driving algorithm is its response to chaotic feedback. In which the conditions or operational results exceed the software/hardware limits.
    Drive by wire aircraft do experience the same constraints, but there is always the backup of a skilled and constantly trained pilot, which can take decisions that no machine can.
    There have been several incidents, but the one that first comes to mind is the USAirways pilot that landed on the Hudson.

    A vehicle with such technology, will most likely trigger a sense of complacency in the driver, trusting the machine so much, that he/she may forget that the ultimate responsibility for vehicle control belongs to them.

    Having said that, I believe that such system to be extremely helpful in some occasions: Seniors, for instance, could keep driving longer. My widowed father has had his license revoked, and depresses him to no end to be completely dependent on others for running the simplest errand.

    • 0 avatar
      Charliej

      Helping seniors drive longer is a good aspect of this technology. As we get older, we have to decide what we give up and when we do it. I have always loved flying, but my eyesight has got to the point that I had to give up flying as pilot in command a few years ago. My night vision is bad enough that my wife drives at night when we go out. Any technology that helps keep seniors mobile is needed. My dad drove until ninety. He had a lot of scrapes in parking lots, but refused to give up the keys. I finally got him to move in with me and the wife. After that he was driven when he went anywhere. It is tough getting old and having to cope with all the changes that getting old brings. This technology can help.

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    Nissan recently also showed this technology CEATEC 2012:

    http://www.diginfo.tv/v/12-0182-r-en.php

    It basically was a driver-less, self-steering, self-parking car that could be called to pick you up via smartphone. Impressively it doesn’t require GPS and relies on 4G LTE cellphone network for location data.

    They call the concept NSC-2015. Meaning that it’ll be ready in a couple years for a 2015 launch.

    Obviously, Nissan isn’t the only ones investing in this technology. Google is a well known example. But the technology is progressing at an incredibly rapid pace largely due to increased processing power and incredibly cheap CMOS camera sensors.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Just wait until this hits the streets. Someone hacks into the code and flips a bit from 0 to 1 and it becomes a pedestrian seeking machine.

  • avatar
    SP

    Humorous thought there. Yet scary.

    I wonder if anyone remembers the commercial with the two squirrels that kept running out into the road to make drivers wreck? Will it one day become a “fun” activity for angst-ridden teens to scare Nissans into ditches?


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