After attending Nissan's Advanced Technology Briefing earlier this month, I can confidently say that Nissan's R&D department is absolutely doing its job. I saw many examples of cutting-edge automotive technology (though they're dragging their feet on hovercars) and most of what I saw points to a more efficient, engaging automotive world, where standards of quality rise ever-higher across the board.
Some of the technology, though, while certainly advanced, was a grim foreshadow of the automotive world to come.
The technology I saw made me realize that we are about to enter a very important transitionary period in the history of motorcars. Autonomous vehicles are absolutely coming, and their mass-market introduction will be the end of this transition period. The beginning is now, and will start with two pieces of tech I encountered: Active Engine Braking and Autonomous Emergency Steering.
Let's go over what these technologies are; we'll start with the more dramatic one, Autonomous Emergency Steering, first. The name pretty much spoils the surprise, because it's exactly that. If you're driving, and the car detects a hazard— say an adorable orphan running out in front of your car with an armload of kittens, the car's systems determine a clear collision avoidance path and automatically steers the car around the hazard.
I rode in a Leaf that had this experimental system installed (two laptops and a trunkful of very nicely hand-wired electronics) and it worked remarkably well. On the test system, there were two onboard monitors where you could see what the car sees visually via the on-board cameras, and see the rangefinder image from the multiple laser windows set into the front, sides, and rear of the car. It was very interesting to see how well the car could process the visual image, picking out people and car shapes from the video stream.
It felt just like you'd expect if you'd quickly jerked the wheel at speed to avoid an obstacle— harsh, fast, with a bit of passenger head klonking— but, with a computer at the helm, it would only do it if that was the last resort and a safe path had been determined, and it never lost control. I was very impressed with how well it worked.
The unspoken slogan for this technology will be "Go Ahead And Text While Driving!" because that's exactly what this is for. The use case is that of an inattentive driver about to rear-end a car in front or a hapless pedestrian. It's effective, it'll save lives, but anyone with a car with this feature is not going to have the same sense of gravity about paying attention to the road after this system saves their ass that first time.
The other technology is much more subtle, and in some ways makes me more uneasy as a result. It's Active Engine Braking, and at first blush, doesn't seem too big a deal. I'm guessing anyone reading this has employed engine braking to slow down a bit at key times— strategically letting off the gas while in gear to keep the momentum in check with the engine. It comes in handy.
Nissan is employing this engine braking system on a CVT-equipped SUV. The system is employed automatically when, say, a driver enters a turn at too high a rate of speed, and the stability control system needs to slow it down in a subtle, controllable way. The engineers explained that its purpose was to simplify driving. Drivers would no longer need to manage brake, gas, and steering while in a turn, since the Auto Engine Braking would help modulate the speed, and the driver can just focus on steering.
Nissan's slide describes it as providing "elegant braking like an expert driver" and while that may be true, the driver is not the expert in this equation. In fact, it's an all but guaranteed way to never become an expert driver because you'll have no idea what you should be doing.
I drove it, and while I could feel it working, I didn't really like the feeling, the loss of control. Sure, maybe it does a better job than I do, but managing brake and gas when going into a curve is part of what going into a curve is all about— no two cars handle it the same way. In my old rear-engine car, I tend to enter slower and accelerate more inside, while on my front-engine AWD car I can enter the chute with more speed, and occasionally brake inside a bit if I need to. It becomes habit, and the process lets you feel how the car is balanced, how it reacts, and how you react to it. This system takes all that away. It may be better, but you won't be.
Both of these systems have as their primary goal safety, and that's of course admirable. But there's a cost here, and that cost is driver skill. As we transition to common autonomous cars, semi-autonomous cars will become more and more common, and driver skill will erode accordingly. The safety advantages are substantial enough that there's no way this won't happen, so we as automobile enthusiasts need to think about what this means now.
It will be like the rise of automatic transmissions, only more so. Some skills were lost in the general driving population when that leftmost pedal became uncommon, but the driving basics remained intact, and the level of attention demanded didn't drop too much. These changes are much more dramatic, and actually involve the car directly compensating for underdeveloped driving skills and habits.
What happens to someone who learns to drive on a car with all these aids rents a "lesser" vehicle? Will they blissfully head into a curve at full throttle and really discover what understeer means as they take an unwanted off-road trip? Will they, even subconsciously, expect the car to steer them out of danger when their attention isn't on the road?
As these cars become common, what will that mean for those of us who choose to do things the old way? Will we end up paying more insurance because our vintage or deliberately unassisted cars aren't independently capable of avoiding disaster? Will drivers' licensing become tiered, with lesser requirements for people who will only drive higher-assistance level cars?
The future doesn't need to be bleak. A sort of tiered-license system could keep lesser-skilled and/or uninterested drivers in safe, semi-robotic cars that are capable of minimizing all kinds of bad habits and stupid decisions. Those of us that choose to run and drive totally brain-run cars may face a stricter drivers' test, but that may not be such a bad thing. Everyone will still be able to drive what they want, and overall the roads would be safer, with people who don't care assisted by machines, and those that do care having the skills to be safe while enjoying loud, analog technology.
A strange side effect is that driving all these test cars has made me realize what a deathtrap I technically use every day. I used to be offended when people would call my car a deathtrap, or refuse to ride with me. That's because, up until quite recently, my '73 VW hasn't really been all that much more dangerous than anything else— well at least back in the '80s and early '90s when people actually said that crap. But that's changing. New cars will make almost everything made before 2010 seem like unreasonable murder-pods.
Mind you, I'm never giving up my old car, deathtrap or not. But I am a little more careful, and I sure as hell don't text when I'm actually driving and shifting and trying to figure out what the hell that noise is from the front right wheel.
(Full Disclosure: I was in Yokohama, Japan to attend Nissan's Advanced Technology Seminar, which is where the company can show off some interesting stuff they're working on long before it actually makes it into our cars. I saw lots of interesting things, and I'll be telling you all about them this week. Oh, and in full disclosure, they flew me out there, fed me fish on a boat, and put me in a hotel right near a bunch of Pachinko parlors. - JT)