Braving Tokyo traffic with a driverless Infiniti
Two years and two months. That’s how long until Nissan says it’ll have its first fully autonomous car on the road. The automaker just launched its first salvo of semi-autonomous driving software, ProPilot, worldwide in vehicles such as the new 2018 Nissan Leaf and 2018 Nissan Rogue, but the ProPilot of today is a long way from what ProPilot of tomorrow needs to be. To show the steps it’s taking to get there, Nissan took me for a ride through Tokyo in an autonomous Infiniti Q50 Hybrid to show off the capabilities of its future ProPilot system.
Before I dive into the autonomous Q50, a quick word on the levels of autonomy: according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), there are five levels of autonomy, aptly named levels one through five. It’s really easy to get into the weeds on what differentiates each level, so here’s a quick trick to keep it all straight. Level 1 is hands-on (think radar cruise control and no lane assist aids), Level 2 is hands-off (radar cruise control and an active lane keep assist system such as Tesla’s AutoPilot or Nissan’s current ProPilot system); Level 3 is eyes-off (the 2019 Audi A8’s Traffic Jam Pilot is the world’s first production example of this); Level 4 is mind-off (you can nap, read, play games); and Level 5 is full-autonomy (the car doesn’t need pedals, a steering wheel, or even a human in it).
The Infiniti Q50 ProPilot prototype I rode shotgun in is, for all intents and purposes, a Level 4 autonomous car. It still needs a human in the driver seat—in this case Tetsuya Iijima, the Nissan engineer leading the company’s autonomous charge—ready to intervene “just in case,” but it’s capable of driving from point to point with zero human intervention.
Iijima-san says the Q50 Hybrid was selected for the ProPilot prototype for practical purposes; the trunk full of computers and wires running the 12 sonars, 12 cameras, nine radars, six lasers, the high-definition mapping software accurate within 30 cm, and driving the car sucks up a lot of juice—1.5 kw worth, to be exact. The electrical demands of the system, plus the linearity of the Q50’s V-6 and electric motor combo, meant it was an easy choice.
Ignoring the ProPilot livery, little visually distinguishes this million-dollar Q50 from the one available at your local dealership. Outside the front and rear bumpers now hide four side-scanning sensors, and four cameras are mounted facing front and rear on the roof rail. Inside, this Q50 is remarkably buttoned up, considering it’s a prototype. The only tell is a high-definition map display located in the storage cubby on the center console, a triple-redundancy measure to verify the car’s position. The other tell is the production-looking instrument cluster. The Q50’s traditional gauges are gone, and in its place is a Tesla-style screen that’s shows the camera’s view of what’s ahead at speeds up to 20 km/h; above that speed, it virtually zooms out, giving you a digital bird’s-eye view of your car, the lanes, and surrounding traffic.
With our route already plugged into the Infiniti’s nav system, Iijima-san tapped the blue ProPilot button on the steering wheel, and the car set off on its own. After our 30-minute loop in the Q50 ProPilot prototype, the nicest possible compliment I can give the Q50 and the Nissan engineers who built it is that the experience was completely uneventful.
Interesting, but uneventful.
Armed with accurate GPS data and the ability to read street signs for the speed limit, the car gives Iijima-san—ever vigilant behind the wheel—time for chitchat. The whole experience is remarkably smooth; it’s like the car is the world’s best chauffeur. The Q50 accelerates efficiently (though admittedly slower than I would if I were driving), it comes to a stop smoothly, and it handles turns, auto lane changes, and merges without hesitation—even announcing what the car is doing before it does it to minimize any anxiety.
The most difficult part about developing the Q50 ProPilot prototype (aside from scoring high-definition maps,) is making the Q50 drive more like a human—or in other words, making the Q50 perfectly imperfect. Computers like ProPilot operate on a set of rules, but humans kinda just do whatever they feel like. That’s why the Q50 stuck to the highway’s 60 km/h (37 mph) speed limit while traffic blew by about 10 mph (16 km/h) faster than us. That’s tricky to program, Iijima-san explains as he sets the Q50 to do 5 km/h over whatever the posted limit is. The only really predictable thing about human beings is that they’re unpredictable. The Nissan team has certainly made some progress on this front, though. During one difficult, blind merge back on a short onramp onto the highway, the Q50 accelerates away from the toll booth at what feels nearly like full-throttle, attempting to anticipate the madness that awaits on the freeway. Thankfully, it’s unusually clear, but the car, which has now done over 2,000 km with less than 50 human interventions, is learning—and doing so quickly.
As we return to our starting point, I ask Iijima-san if the Nissan team has lost any of its Q50s during autonomous testing. “Yes!” He says a deer jumped out and hit one car a while back, effectively totaling the million-dollar prototype. There have also been a few close calls in traffic, too, where the Q50s have almost been rear-ended by inattentive drives. That’s why, he adds, a Nissan Note has been tailing us. It’s the sacrificial lamb if worse comes to worse. The Nissan team is currently looking at software solutions to deal with suicidal animals and texting drivers. In the meantime, Nissan’s fleet of Infiniti Q50 Hybrid ProPilot prototypes will continue to grow as the automaker inches closer to putting its first autonomous car into production in 2020.