Nissan has released details of a 230-mile drive completed in late November last year by an all-electric Nissan Leaf kitted out with driverless technology. The journey, between Cranfield University in Bedfordshire and Nissan’s UK headquarters in Sunderland, represents the longest known drive by a driverless vehicle ever carried out on British roads.
The Leaf that drove the 230 miles, with a safety driver who wasn’t generally required to intercede, was equipped by seven cameras, eight lidar sensors which continuously map a 360-degree picture of the vehicle’s surroundings in real time, two GPS satellite receivers and computers to process the information.
While a number of secret driverless projects that include test drives are known to be taking place in the UK, Nissan’s journey is the longest to date – at least in making details available to the public. The pre-mapped and programmed route included the Leaf traversing country roads, multi-lane roundabouts, motorways, merging motorways and stretches of road in a ‘semi-urban’ setting. Nissan announcing details of the drive is a demonstration of how far its driverless technology has advanced.
The safety drivers always present throughout the trip did, however, take control of the vehicle at the four service stations it stopped at to recharge. The autonomous kit is not quite yet at the stage it is able to locate a chargepoint and reliably navigate the less regulated traffic movements of a service station environment.
The safety driver only had to take control at one point on the open roads – when the vehicle wasn’t able to interpret the red cross on the overhead gantry signage of a broken-down lorry, telling drivers to move into an outside line. The lorry was parked on the inside lane.
Bob Bateman of the Nissan Technical Centre at Cranfield led the project. He outlined that the lane marked and regulated traffic of motorway driving is the ‘relatively easy bit’ of what driverless technology has to deal with. Narrow country roads without road markings or kerbs and oncoming traffic passing at much closer quarters and urban environments with far more variables are the true test of how far the technology has come.
Nissan is now demonstrating its tech to journalists on a three-mile stretch of country lane. How the autonomous vehicle deals with traffic lights and pulling out into a suitable gap in the flow of traffic, safely but not overly conservatively, is impressive, say journalists who have taken Nissan up on the offer.
But limitations are also still apparent. A Times reporter details how the autonomous Leaf he is a passenger in drives slightly too closely to the grass verge at one point. The project engineer accompanying him on the drive explains that is the result of the GPS signal being slightly weaker at that point due to a dip in the road.
Nissan’s project demonstrate that we are getting close to ‘Level 4’ autonomous driving technology. That’s a level where the driver can be hands and even eyes off the road but in place to take control if necessary. Level 5 is the next stage in driverless technology. That represents full self-driving to the point a passenger could leave their car, which will then go and park itself and return to pick the passenger up where and when required.
The UK is determined to be at the forefront of the driverless revolution. The government and its advisors believe that being an early mover offers an economic opportunity in what is forecast to be a future industry worth billions. The UK also wants to take the lead in the regulation and certification of that new sector – reprising its role in the regulation of emerging global insurance and maritime law markets.
For its part, Nissan is convinced it is close to being able to offer autonomous vehicles that use safe, reliable and efficient technology that is affordable to the mass market. David Moss, Nissan’s head of research and development at Cranfield, confidently states that at this point “the only barrier is regulatory.”
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