Autonomous vehicles operating freely on public roads are still a long way from reality, according to the experts from Nissan.
The senior vice-president of connected vehicles and mobility services, Ogi Redzic, says carmakers can't put a time frame on when they'll be able to sell self-driving cars because they're not in control of many of the processes needed for it to happen.
He cites a global legal framework, hi-resolution millimetre-accurate maps and consumer acceptance of the technology as just a few of the obstacles to be overcome. He also notes carmakers respond to imprecise questions with imprecise answers.
"Say a 2021 target is the example. What they may be saying is in a little, geofenced area with certain speed and conditions. If you ask generic statements, like 'when will all cars be driverless?', well of course we are talking about the very distant future.
"But I'd argue you're seeing this on the road in controlled situations already. We can (technically) do this today, no problem."
His views are echoed by alliance research and advanced engineering chief, Kazuhiro Doi, who says Nissan won't be ready for large-scale fully-autonomous driving trials to get underway until 2022. Even then, years of research will be needed to validate how the software operates in a myriad of conditions.
"Maybe we will start with normal vehicle taxi or delivery service. What we have to really think about is the use case," Doi says.
"How we can secure the safety in such an environment with an unmanned vehicle is really the key. The weather condition is another challenge for the technologies. We use laser, LIDAR, camera, but none of the sensors can cover every condition.
"For example, a camera can't work in the dark, a radar can't work in the rain or snow, but unfortunately a customer wants to take a taxi in rain or snow conditions. The system just works on a sunny day so it cannot make a business. So that is really the challenge - how do we expand the use case?"
Nissan is about to undertake a trial in Yokohama, Japan, in partnership with tech company DeNA, using the company's Easy Ride robo-taxis and a mobile app to book and pay for the service.
Nissan notes autonomous vehicles can't yet navigate public pick-up and drop-off zones as a human driver would be able to do, given many people stop illegally to drop off or pick up passengers _ and that's something an autonomous vehicle isn't programmed to do. Instead dedicated parking bays will be needed.
Redzig says robo-taxis will be remotely monitored by humans who can take over the vehicle if required.
"For example, if there is a crash, cars just behind may have to do a U-turn or drive on the wrong side of the road to avoid the scene and autonomous vehicles won't do that," he says.
Gayle Milnes, Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Environment and Energy's Climate Change Division, was a keynote speaker at the Nissan futures event in Singapore last week and says preparing for autonomous vehicles will mean adapting Australia's driving laws and our regulations governing access and use of data.
"In Australia, work so far suggests that our legal environment is pretty good and pretty supportive of new technologies, but all of our driving laws are very focused on the driver being a human, so there are some significant changes that would be required to support these kinds of technologies," she says.
"Who owns the data, who has access, the sharing arrangements for the data, interoperability, interconnectivity between the vehicle and the infrastructure. They are among the areas of focus for us."
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
The second generation of Nissan's electric-powered Leaf will arrive in Australia before the end of the year, hopefully starting at less than the rumoured $50,000.
The first version of the compact hatch was the best-selling EV in the world with 300,000 sales but failed to attract much local interest at $51,990 (the price was cut by around $10,000 towards the end of its run).
This one uses the same platform but has denser batteries, a bigger motor and a more conventional look than its predecessor.
A real-world range of around 270km should offset range anxiety issues and with 110kW/320Nm it is appreciably faster than the first-gen car.
Nissan also boasts the Leaf's "e-pedal" _ an accelerator to you and me ¬_ can be used exclusively in around 90 per cent of driving situations. The regenerative braking is more aggressive than most EVs and lifting off the pedal will see the car come to a fairly swift stop, even on downhill slopes.
The car feels impressively fast for a compact hatch, even in the confines of a university test track, but it will need to impress on the road at the projected price.
The automated parking system works in forward, reverse and parallel situations but operates at such a slow speed that human drivers will be blasting their horns for holding them up.
The Leaf does demonstrate Nissan is at the fore in electric vehicle development but also highlights the fact government incentives will be the only way for EVs to find traction in the short term _ battery-powered cars accounted for 0.1 per cent of new car sales last year.
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