Nissan to Debut Hands-Free Driving in Japan This Year

Nissan is set to join the hands-free driving club with the release of ProPilot 2.0, Automotive News reports. It will only be in Japan for now, although the company says it expects to roll out to other markets in the future.

Currently, ProPilot 1.0 offers a number of semi-autonomous driving features familiar to most adaptive cruse control users, including “Steering Control” which helps keep the car centered in the lane, but it requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel.

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ProPilot 2.0 will expand on those capabilities by allowing drivers to select a destination through the car’s GPS system and a desired speed. Then, the car will, Nissan says, operate itself on the highways, including passing other vehicles and guiding the car onto the off-ramp. But, as Automotive News clarified, drivers will have to put their hands on the wheel in performative fashion while switching lanes to comply with Japanese law. A camera mounted on the dashboard monitors the driver to ensure they’re paying attention to the road and can intervene in emergencies.

Unlike Tesla’s fleet, ProPilot 2.0 won’t be backwards-compatible because it requires new hardware. Automotive News says:

ProPilot 2.0 integrates a collection of seven cameras, five radar sensors and 12 sonar sensors. It tops the package off with a 3D high-definition navigation system. However, it does not use lidar, the laser-based sensor technology that is now the rage in the autonomous driving world. [General manager of Nissan’s AV systems Tetsuya] Iijima said Nissan’s amalgam of sensors and mapping is just as good.

We don’t need to re-litigate the to-lidar-or-not-to-lidar debate here, but it’s worth noting ProPilot 2.0 is not reliant on a single type of sensor. There’s redundancy between the cameras, radar, and sonar, which is a huge plus.

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Overall, ProPilot 2.0 sounds very similar to Cadillac’s Super Cruise, which also uses a variety of external sensors and 3D mapping data to provide a hands-free highway experience while monitoring the driver with a mounted camera to ensure they’re watching the road. (Tesla’s Autopilot is technically not hands-free since drivers are required to maintain contact with the steering wheel regularly, although there’s ample evidence to suggest the system is designed to facilitate hands-free driving in practice.)

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As impressive as all this technology is, I’m not entirely sure it offers a significant upgrade over the existing ProPilot system in terms of driver comfort until drivers can truly (and safely) do other things while the car drives itself. If you don’t believe me, try and sit still, with your hands in your lap, staring straight ahead right now for 30 consecutive seconds. Do you find that enjoyable? Because that’s what you’ll be doing when ProPilot 2.0 is activated.

Super Cruise, ProPilot 2.0, and their counterparts all feel like intermediate steps before the regulatory, legal, and civil law framework gets sorted out, including the question of who is at fault when a car that drives itself crashes. Yes, that is when, not if.

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Aaron Gordon

Senior Reporter, Investigations & Technology, Jalopnik