You may not have to drive yourself to work forever. Many organizations, from automakers to governments to universities, have been working on technology to allow cars to drive themselves for years. Now Nissan says it plans to sell such cars to the public by 2020, and it will offer several models. This is the first time that a company has publicly declared such a goal. The company says it plans to roll automated systems out across its lineup within two model generations, or in about 10 years.
The last time Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn set such a public goal—to sell a pure electric car to the public by 2011—it sounded just as outlandish. The Nissan Leaf went on sale in November of 2011.
Government regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently said they are studying the legal issues surrounding autonomous cars, including who would be liable in case of an accident or other unforeseen circumstances. NHTSA says it is not yet ready to allow autonomous cars on public roads. (The states of California and Nevada, however, do allow autonomous cars on state roads for testing, as long as they have one or two people on board who can override the controls.)
Many of the systems required to control cars autonomously are already coming to market as driver safety aids, such as active cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and forward-collision mitigation systems. Nissan also announced it is building a full track in Japan specifically to test these automated cars and related systems, several of which are already available on some high-end Nissan and Infiniti models. (Read our special report on smarter, safer cars.)
Consumer Reports is also developing tests to gauge the effectiveness of advanced safety systems at our own test track. We’ve found many of the currently available systems work well, but some are too intrusive in everyday driving.
We hope when these systems roll out that they are effective and have been adequately tested. And we also hope legal systems are in place that will support this newfound infrastructure and protect motorists’ privacy. Between autonomous driving and modern electric cars, the 21st century is shaping up to be a very different transportation era.