Self-driving car ‘like being chauffeured by granny’

Nissan's Tetsuya Iijima explains the self-driving prototype vehicle after its test drive in Tokyo. Picture: AP
Nissan's Tetsuya Iijima explains the self-driving prototype vehicle after its test drive in Tokyo. Picture: AP
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If you’ve ever dreamt of zooming into the future in a zippy car, like something out of The Jetsons, think again.

Because taking a ride in a self-driving car is similar to being driven around by a particularly cautious grandmother.

Requiring neither hands on the steering wheel nor a foot on the gas pedal or brakes, the ­Nissan Motor Co. car making its way on Japanese public roads is instead packed with radars, lasers, cameras and computer chips.

Nissan’s “intelligent driving” feature is smart enough to navigate intersections without lane markers. It also brakes safely to a stop without crashing into the vehicle in front, and it knows the difference between a red light and a tail-lamp. Reporters were given a half-hour test ride in the prototype vehicle yesterday on a scenic but pre-programmed course on Tokyo roads, which included stopping at traffic lights, making turns, changing lanes and crossing a bridge across the bay.

The car was painstakingly careful, like someone extra ­cautious on the road.

It always stayed within the speed limit and and slowed down, appearing to be “thinking” at slightly complicated situations, such as cars coming from another lane. The system is designed to recognise people and if a pedestrian jumps out onto the road, the car should come to a stop.

Nissan, which also makes the Infiniti luxury model and the March subcompact, is preparing the autonomous driving option for vehicles going on sale in 2020.

It plans to have abbreviated versions of the technology starting from next year, such as keeping a safe distance from the car in front on congested roads.

The car is still unable to deal with unexpected situations, such as moving to the side of the road if an ambulance approaches. At one point, the human driver, who was in the seat for the whole test ride, had to intervene because the car did not properly recognise an unclearly drawn lane. Otherwise, it did fine.

Nissan General Manager Tetsuya Iijima, who was the human driver for the test ride, acknowledged the system needs fine-tuning. But he was confident it was the way of the future, delivering better safety, because more than 90 per cent of traffic accidents are caused by driver error.