TechnologyI have tested almost 1,000 cars in 20 years and now I 'drive' an autonomous: 7 things I have learned

I have tested almost 1,000 cars in 20 years and now I ‘drive’ an autonomous: 7 things I have learned

LONDON — The first car I tried was a 110 hp Citroën Xsara HDI. A compact diesel that also had the hook of having a most rudimentary browser: no maps. Arrows on a dot matrix panel led me to a direction that was entered (very) slowly with a rotary knob.

But more than two decades have passed since then, and things have changed their way.. Drive myself? We are beginning an era in which, perhaps, it begins to be something as bizarre as riding a horse every day.

It seems that many manufacturers are committed to autonomous driving. The last to jump to the fore (at least publicly) has been Nissan, which is collaborating with the CityServ Laboratory to develop an autonomous car.

AND He does it in Greenwich, a neighborhood in east London where I travel to “not test” the car. There’s the basis of the whole project, with a control center full of screens… and also the result: a Nissan Leaf with so many knick-knacks that I’m disappointed not to find a flux capacitor fluzing like in the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

After a day surrounded by engineers in which I was able to learn more about this technologyhow it is done and how one feels as a user, these are the conclusions that I have been able to draw.

Costs a lot of money

In the London laboratory they have the support of the British Government, which has granted them aid from a fund of 100 million pounds (112 million euros). In total, they have spent about 12 million euros in three years: they started in 2020 and have just finished the first phase of three years.

At the same time, studies and trials have been carried out in Yokohama and California to test different driving situations: from the wide and long American avenues to the narrower and more orderly Japanese ones. London represents Europe with its narrow streets, crowded with cars and chaotic behaviour.

It is a technology that is far ahead of current legislation

The driver never touched the steering wheel;  on the screen, which "go" the system

Nissan has a fairly evolved assistance system called ProPilot that takes into account the environment (signals, other vehicles) to offer a kind of assisted driving in which the driver has to be constantly with his hands on the wheel and intervening quite actively.

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The second evolution is already available in the United States and Japan, although European laws are somewhat more restrictive and are still adjusting. “A pain in the ass“, an expression that I prefer not to translate with which an engineer summarizes me when he talks to me about the legislation in force in our continent.

And it is that To drive on the street, a driver is necessary, and that he has his hands continuously on the wheel. The CityServ Nissan Leaf is registered and has a circulation permit, but someone always has to go just in case they have to take charge of the situation. Which is curious, because in the three years of tests in real traffic they have not registered a single incident.

The incidents are still not well regulated…

I ask Moss what would happen in the event of a crash. Who would be to blame? The “non-conductor”? The owner of the vehicle? Nissan? ServCity? It is a question that I bring up in the thread that in the United Kingdom it seems that the manufacturer will be the culprit.

After some thought, he links me to the above: It is something so incipient, that nothing is clear yet.

He tells me about future variables, like determine if a human was driving, if the other car is also autonomousif it is due to a hardware failure…

… but your driving is much safer

Due to the huge amount of data it receives and processes every second, the decisions of the car are impeccable, so the possibility of an accident is reduced to almost zero. In the 2,600 km of autonomous driving that they have done in 36 months, they have not recorded a single accident.

The car “sees” everything

The author of this report, pretending to know what he is looking at...The author of this report, pretending to know what he is looking at...

The prototype has four LIDARnine cameras, a radar, a V2I antenna (connects with the external infrastructure), six electronic control units for autonomous driving and another two for managing the car itself.

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all that display allows the car to interact with the environment itself. Until December 2022, the project has required for its development some 16,000 hours of work by 116 peopleabout 500,000 lines of code, 5.45 million gigabytes of information and 83,231 interactions with other vehicles and pedestrians.

The Nissan Leaf uses its “eyes” to recognize pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, trucks and guide yourself easily along the defined route regardless of whether there is traffic, traffic lights, crossroads, double-parked cars…

You can also see what is not within your reach

The cameras "come" and locate each object, which the software classifies and sends to the autonomous carThe cameras "come" and locate each object, which the software classifies and sends to the autonomous car

ServCity also uses the infrastructure by the SMLL (Smart Mobility Living Lab). In total there are 270 radar cameras on a circuit of just over 30 km, although I am going to find 12 on a route of just over 5 km.

Those cameras see things. No, not in the style of The sixth Sense: also locate them with centimeter precision. In these years, engineers and programmers have taught the system to differentiate a bus from a car, a van or a pedestrian.

Its shape is almost like the ones our DGT puts on the highways, but what is “on the other side of the cable” is more sophisticated: software classifies them and sends the information to the car in real time.

So, the Nissan Leaf knows at all times what is happening beyond the human field of vision (for example, three streets away) and the range of its sensors (about 200 meters) to decide speed or even if it should change lanes.

For it they need high-resolution cartography to help them function in the environment. For now they have about 30 km and the development has been carried out by the company Catapult.

They can coexist with ‘humans’

An almost normal Nissan Leaf, fitted with autonomous driving sensors in real London trafficAn almost normal Nissan Leaf, fitted with autonomous driving sensors in real London traffic

In an ideal world (for autonomous driving) where everything is connected, there will not be too many problems. But the streets of London are abuzz at lunchtime, on a sunny Wednesday! in full school holidays.

A pedestrian who crosses where he shouldn’t, an unbridled van that zigzags; another that parks with half a vehicle in the traffic lane, a motorcycle that passes too close… I think it is not surprising that there are experts who believe that the streets of Madrid are not prepared for autonomous driving.

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Real world stuff that the standalone Leaf handles without too much trouble. Moss proudly tells me that The idea is that the autonomous car can coexist without problems with the rest of the driverswhich does not have to go in an autonomous car.

It’s like being driven by a human

I thought that the autonomous car would stay in the unperturbed lane. But she moves naturally for him. If a car approaches, it moves away a bit. During the first lap of the 5 km circuit, a pedestrian crosses the wrong way. He slows down a bit but doesn’t stop: when the freeway returns, he accelerates.

He arrives at an improperly parked van: the self-driving car brakes, separates and does what anyone would do, circle it carefully. “Half lane change,” they tell me, although it doesn’t have to be that way: it just leaves the safety space that it has programmed.

despite everything is a autonomous driving level 4 (these are the six levels of autonomous driving). In other words: “highly automated”, but not completely, since if there were a bump in the asphalt, the driver would have to correct the trajectory… although little else.

The bad news is that it’s not coming anytime soon.

It is certainly spectacular and leaves me speechless. But despite everything, autonomous driving is taking its first real steps now. The CityServ project started in Europe three years ago and now they are finishing this phase of the tests.

Other experts believe that we may begin to see them on the road in the second half of the decade, such as the director of the National 5G Observatory, Federico Ruiz.

I ask those responsible when they expect all this to hit the streets. “Not too soon, we’re still waking up,” answers David Moss, Nissan Europe’s senior vice president of R&D. Nissan released a press release setting a horizon around 2030, but they dare not confirm it.


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