Nissan is set to unveil its next-generation Leaf in three weeks. But ahead of its Sept. 5 launch, the Japanese brand showcased one of its significant new features – a semi-autonomous technology called ProPilot Assist that uses forward-facing radar and a front camera, along with sensors and an electronic control module to detect highway lane markings and surrounding vehicles.
"The Leaf has been a flagship vehicle for Nissan, and we feel this hands-on driver assistance system will be a perfect technological fit for the EV market," said Andy Christensen, senior manager of intelligent transportation systems research for Nissan.
Absolutely. The Leaf's EV platform already possesses plenty of electronic controls – including electric power steering, a brake-by-wire system, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control – and ProPilot Assist will act as an enhanced software integration building off its existing hardware.
But unlike other auto makers, such as Tesla Motors, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac that have already implemented a plethora of semi-autonomous aids into their vehicles, Nissan is taking a slow, methodical approach. Think tortoise and hare.
This is a long-term game and the 2018 Leaf is stage one of a four-year roll-out that will see 10 vehicles by 2020 with some form of autonomous drive assist across the Renault-Nissan Alliance. Multi-lane highway driving aids will be added in two years, and city driving will come into play within four, but for now, ProPilot Assist provides assisted steering, braking and acceleration during single-lane highway driving.
The upcoming Leaf wasn't available for this test through this bustling Detroit bedroom community; instead, a pre-production Rogue was our test vehicle on the busy and quick-moving I-696. Hmm. Is the Rogue the second vehicle earmarked to receive this technology?
Everything about ProPilot Assist is deliberately simple. It's a two-step process: Press the blue button on the right side of the steering wheel, followed by the "SET-" button to activate. Other buttons can adjust coasting speed and car-length distance. If you're familiar with adaptive cruise control, it's essentially the same process that works from 0 to 145 km/h; it just has to be activated at 32 km/h.
What separates ProPilot Assist from individual technologies such as lane-keep assist or adaptive cruise control is that it acts as an always-on safety shield. It's naturally smooth without an intermittent on-and-off ping-pong effect that occurs with independent technologies. In addition, the system kept the Rogue centred in the lane, even on highway bends. If you try to merge into an adjacent lane without a turn signal, you'll be met with some resistance, keeping safety and the driver's focus on the road as the priority.
Facing a traffic slowdown was when the system shined brightest. The Rogue adjusted its speed accordingly, eventually coming to a full stop without my help. Once the vehicle ahead moved forward, so did the Rogue, as long as it happened within three seconds. After three seconds, the system forces the driver to re-activate by pressing the "RES+" button or by tapping the accelerator to prove they're still alert and engaged.
Nissan made it indubitably clear ProPilot Assist isn't self-driving technology; rather, it's a continuous driver-assistance system added to temporarily relieve, not replace the driver in times of fatigue or stress during stop-and-go traffic and on long trips. Want to stretch your legs for a few seconds? No problem, but it's not for texting, watching Netflix or finding a snack.
There's nothing earth-shattering about Nissan's ProPilot Assist, but perhaps that's its best trait. With so many auto makers making outlandish statements about their autonomous programs, Nissan is taking a slow and steady approach in order to economically introduce consumers to its semi-autonomous ways.
Nissan's advanced-research road map will hopefully lead to fully autonomous vehicles, but for now, it's comfortable with a calculated and focused approach to win the race, much like the tortoise.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.