The car that drives itself has long been a mainstay of science-fiction stories, but the future is here. Several automakers, as well as Google, have presented vehicles that use suites of technologies to accelerate, steer, and brake themselves.

The list includes Nissan, which recently took journalists around a course in an electric Leaf that did almost everything by itself.

“We did get a chuckle out of the thought of two Leafs prowling the mall at Christmas and autonomously fighting over the last spot”


The autonomous Leaf with its steward, Mitsuhiko Yamashita

“The goal is a safer, more comfortable, and more convenient vehicle,” said Tetsuya Iijima, general manager of Nissan’s ITS engineering department in Japan. “Our current target is electrification and vehicle intelligence, and we are already there with electrification.”

Equipped with two screens mounted on the dash, as well as a way-cool translucent steering wheel that glows with blue lights when the wheel turns, the autonomous Leaf heads out to the course, where the driver relinquishes all control. The Leaf accelerates to match a car in front, and when that vehicle slows down, the Leaf waits for an oncoming car to go by before it signals, pulls out to pass, and then returns to its lane.

When a row of construction cones closes the lane, the Leaf automatically moves over, maintaining a set distance from them. Up ahead, a pedestrian darts out into traffic, and the Leaf rapidly veers to avoid him. The hapless jaywalker is actually a dummy that stops suddenly when the arm that hurls him out comes to the end of its travel.

In reality, a pedestrian might have continued running, and the Leaf’s sideways trajectory might have resulted in a collision anyway. Iijima says that everything is a work in progress, and there is still some fine-tuning ahead to determine the best reaction to unforeseen dangers.

Finally, the Leaf takes itself over to a crowded parking lot, where it finds the single available space and obediently backs into it. (We did get a chuckle out of the thought of two Leafs prowling the mall at Christmas and autonomously fighting over the last spot, although in reality, they might use their sensors to determine which car got there a millisecond first.)

…if you’re expecting to get into your next Nissan and simply let it drive you everywhere, you’re not there yet


Being in the driver’s seat while the vehicle steered around a crash was impressive

It would seem that Nissan’s engineers created an entirely new system to do all of this, but in reality, as with other automakers, the autonomous car is the result of combining a long line of technologies, many of them already available on production models.

These include such things as adaptive cruise control, which maintains a pre-set gap behind vehicles in front; blind spot detection, which determines if other vehicles are alongside; lane departure, which monitors the lanes and determines if the car is crossing out of its intended path; and crash avoidance, which can slow or stop the car if something or someone is in its way, or when backing out into a live traffic lane.

The autonomous system also introduces two new technologies: advanced sensors that monitor 360 degrees around the vehicle, using laser scanners and Nissan’s existing cameras for its Around View Monitor in-dash screen; and advanced artificial intelligence, which allows the car to react to the data collected by its sensors.

The autonomous system is being tested in all conditions, and Iijima says that the next generation of lasers will be far more robust than the ones the self-driving Leaf currently uses. These stronger systems will be less vulnerable to weather, and will be able to “see” through dirt or slush buildup in foul weather.

Using its systems, the autonomous Leaf can enter and turn in intersections while monitoring traffic, monitor its sides to keep a safe distance from cars or objects alongside, and watch oncoming traffic so it can overtake other vehicles, including going around parked cars.

But if you’re expecting to get into your next Nissan and simply let it drive you everywhere, you’re not there yet. For now, at least, the idea is that while autonomous driving will be available on vehicles, you’ll still do at least some of the work, or even most of it, yourself.

That’s partly because legislation is still dealing with the issues behind licensing autonomous vehicles for the road, and because most people aren’t yet willing to give up complete control. Iijima envisions people letting the system take over in very dense traffic or on monotonous trips, but taking the wheel themselves when the road opens up.

When it comes to consumer acceptance, he believes that the U.S. will be the first market to introduce it, followed by Japan and Europe.

“It’s highly advanced crash avoidance technology,” Iijima says. “The driver can have the benefit of the technology even if they don’t use the autonomous mode. It’s very convenient and efficient, but if they don’t use it, it’s a vehicle that doesn’t crash.”