Nissan LEAF Autonomous Drive test vehicle

Autonomous Drive coming sooner than you think, Ghosn explains

At a press conference in Japan, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn talked about the company's plans for self-driving vehicles, but the details were far more interesting than the headlines.

While most of the take-away from the Ghosn announcement in Japan earlier this week has been that Renault-Nissan will be launching Autonomous Drive technologies starting in 2016 and have completely self-driving cars by 2020, the most interesting aspects of it weren't just those quick bullet points, but hidden deeper in the hour-long presentation given by the Chief Executive.

Several of the technologies which Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, detailed are already viable and some are even in cars today. For example, the automated lane controls he says will be common in vehicles in the next three or four years are just next-generation versions of the lane-keeping controls already in vehicles like the new 2015 Chrysler 200, several BMW models, and some premium Infiniti and other vehicles. These use cameras, radar, or combinations thereof to keep the vehicle in its lane automatically by altering the steering path through electric-assist steering systems. To be honest, the "Traffic-jam Pilot" that Ghosn talked about is really just a more refined version of something we tested in the new Chrysler 200 earlier this month.

Other tech, like Active Cruise Control, which changes the speed of the vehicle in order to match slower vehicles ahead of it on the highway, slowing the car down and speeding it back up without driver input, are already relatively commonplace on many brands of car. Traffic management and reporting is also commonplace in today's connected vehicles. All that remains is to interweave these technologies and add a few more, most of which are just extensions of what's already possible, to create cars capable of driving themselves in most common traffic situations.

In fact, of everything Ghosn said that's made headlines, only the timetable, which is sooner than we might have expected, was a surprise. 2020 seems awfully close at hand for a car that drives itself to be realistic. Yet, when you look at it closely, maybe it's not so distant after all.

Ghosn's claim is backed up by a recent Navigant forecast, which says that about forty percent of new vehicles in the year 2030 will have some form of autonomous driving capability and that nearly all will have it within five years after that. Navigant concurs with Ghosn's earlier comments regarding the viability of these self-driving vehicles being as much about regulatory hurdles and questions of liability than they are about technical capability.

What's really interesting about Ghosn's presentation, however, was not so much the aggressive timetable and rollout plans for Nissan's Autonomous Drive as it was the trends the CEO listed as being the driving forces behind its marketability.

Those four trends were: rising mega-cities, in-car connectivity, elderly population growth, and women becoming a primary force in automotive marketing.

Although he expounded on each of those in his presentation (you can read the transcript here), we can summarize the points.

The mega-city trend is clear - cities are getting larger, urban sprawl in the Americas is growing while cities in Europe and Asia are getting taller. In all cases, populations are growing in smaller, concentrated areas. This means that people are driving shorter distances, but taking longer to get there because of traffic and congestion. Automated driving would alleviate not only the tedium of sitting through stop-and-go traffic, but help reduce the amount of stopping versus going by putting many of the vehicles involved on the same "wavelength" in terms of operations.

Further, today's buyers, especially in the coveted youth and twenties markets, are exceedingly tech-savvy, yet the vehicles that are generally available are not. Connectivity within vehicles is only a very recent phenomenon, but the generally slow pace of carmaker adaptation of new tech versus its arrival means a big disconnect between what's cutting-edge and what's actually in cars being sold.

The growth of elderly populations in first-world nations is also a big game-changer for many in the industry. While the "youth buyer" is often the focused target market for many "halo" (showcase) vehicles, they are generally the least-interested car buyers on the whole, in terms of actual sales. That market is, instead, the rest of the buyers: the middle-aged and elderly. This market continues to expand while the youth market shrinks. Studies show that older drivers prefer more automation and easier driving and are more likely to buy the premium vehicles in which that practical tech appears.

This dovetails with the rise of the female car buyer. Women now make up just over half of all new-car sales and their share is still growing. They are also more often the primary decision maker on new vehicle purchases in the household. These market factors are changing what is popular in vehicles versus what was more popular just a few years ago. Women, as a whole, tend to be less interested in the act of driving so much as they are in the accouterments that come with it (infotainment, connectivity, comfort, etc).

These trends are greatly changing how automotive marketing affects sales.

So while hurdles in regulations, acceptance by insurance and legal groups, and in actually getting the technology ready for market are huge, the payoffs thanks to the high marketability of Autonomous Drive are even larger. Hence, says Ghosn (in so many words), Nissan and Renault are going for it.

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