Levels of autonomy less important to Nissan’s experts

Imagining the road to driverless vehicles is a simple series of steps up the Level’s ladder is a misconception of the challenges ahead.

That’s the view of Dr. Maarten Sierhuis, Nissan Research Center director based at the Silicon Valley facility. Speaking exclusively to TU-Automotive after the carmaker’s second Nissan Futures event in Barcelona exploring it autonomous driving technologies, Sierhuis said even getting to Level 3 provides huge problems for the industry.

He said: “I think Level 3 is still very difficult that’s because it’s ‘eyes-off’ driving and the problem with this is because to get a human driver back in the loop quick enough is not an easy proposition. At Nissan we do eyes-on, or what people call Level 2.”

His solution to break down the obstacles facing the driverless car is to overturn the notion of the Levels dominating how we progress along the autonomous path.

Sierhuis explained: “Personally, I think these levels are kind of silly and are only there because humans always like to categorise things. At Nissan we don’t use these levels. I have created a slide diagram where I show Level O to Level 5 on the ‘x’ axis of capability and I create ‘y’ axis on intelligence. On this axis you start rising up from ‘safe’, annoying’, ‘acceptable’, ‘human like’ and ‘socially acceptable. Of course, where we would like to go is Level 5 to become socially acceptable but there are many different ways to traverse this road map: you could go from Level 0 to Level 5 with ‘annoying’ or you could go from zero to Level 1 and then Level 2 as ‘socially acceptable’ and then go to increased capability.

“The question is: what is the right way to make a way through this difficult idea of making more intelligence versus more capability.

“I think that what is socially acceptable has to do with the trust of bringing that technology to market, it has to be safe without a driver in the car. We have air traffic where planes fly three miles apart with two pilots in the cockpit, working with an autonomous system, and yet we still let the pilots land the plane.”

Getting any of the Levels to ‘socially acceptable’ is no mean feat, said Sierhuis adding: “The hard thing with Level 3 and above is not having a human in the loop and so we need to take these steps carefully to get people to trust the technology before we are willing to take those steps. It has to use a system that can drive everywhere ‘acceptably’. With highway driving I believe we can do it but city driving is a different ball game. Nissan would like to cross that divide and we would like to deliver the capability of driving in the city because it might be safer if we provide these sensor technologies in autonomous vehicles.”

Level 3 in five years

That said, he believes the step to Level 3 will be achieved within the next five years while other Levels will take a lot longer. He said: “If I can provide a reasonable value for people to drive eyes-off in the city in ways that are safe and where they don’t have to constantly look up and see what’s going on that’s a difficult proposition.

“We are working on technology that we will announce at CES that I can’t talk about, that might make that step come a bit sooner.”

He said current technology based on sensors is too simplistic to handle the complex set of requirements a vehicle will have to cope with navigating different roads in rapidly changing weather conditions.

Sierhuis said: “Sensor technology is the basic technology that we need but if I want to do a right turn on a red light in the US, I need to be able to see far enough down the road to see a car approaching at high speed, yet with the current sensor technology, it’s very difficult to do that manoeuvre. Even if the sensor could handle that, if there is a tree or a parked vehicle in the way of the line of sight, it wouldn’t be able to cope. These are hard problems to solve. With a four-way stop intersection, it’s not just about the sensor technology it’s more the AI technology needed in order to predict what a pedestrian is going to do, or a cyclist is going to do and how to negotiate with other road users.”

With all the talk of driverless technology, Sierhuis said the consumer must remain paramount in any business plan bringing the technology to market. He said: “You have to bring technology into the world that is human centred, putting the consumer at the centre of things, and then show them the value of our technology that comes to market. If I develop a car that every two minutes says ‘now you drive,‘ then ‘now I drive’, it won’t be that interesting to the customer. This may have Level 3 capability but if it’s only for a short time over the commute, then it’s not that valuable.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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