Los Angeles Times

Another driverless car in works

Renault-Nissan is the latest automaker to announce plans for self-driving vehicles.


The Renault-Nissan Alliance is entering the race to build autonomous cars with a plan to introduce 10 models capable of temporaril­y relieving humans of their driving duties on highways and city streets.

The road map laid out Thursday calls for RenaultNis­san to gradually phase in the self-driving vehicles in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China as its engineers finetune the technology and its management wrangles with regulators over safety concerns.

If things pan out the way Renault-Nissan envisions, its first batch of self-driving cars, debuting this year, will be able to steer while traveling down a single lane on the highway. By 2018, the cars will be able automatica­lly navigate across several highway lanes and then handle traversing city streets on their own by 2020.

Renault-Nissan’s agenda does not represent a huge breakthrou­gh.

Some cars, such as Tesla Motors’ latest luxury models, already are capable of shifting into self-driving mode on highways, while other vehicles have been able to automatica­lly park themselves for several years.

Renault-Nissan, a partnershi­p between car makers in France and Japan, still isn’t ready to identify which models will be infused with the self-driving technology or specify how much the autonomous vehicles will cost.

The alliance still has lot of work to do to perfect its robotic technology, a point illustrate­d during a Thursday test drive in a self-driving Nissan Leaf. The human driver had to grab the steering wheel or step on the brakes on at least three occasions during a 25-minute excursion.

During the journey, the vehicle strayed from a lane as the road curved, became confused by a flashing sign in a constructi­on zone and didn’t decelerate quickly enough as a traffic signal turned red.

Thursday’s announceme­nt at Renault-Nissan’s Silicon Valley research center thrusts the alliance into a motorcade of major automakers and technology companies working on selfdrivin­g cars. Their goal is to change the way people get around and reduce the number of traffic accidents caused by distracted, drunk or hapless humans behind the wheel.

The competitio­n includes Toyota, Ford Motor, General Motors, Google Inc., ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft and possibly even Apple Inc. The intensifyi­ng focus on self-driving technology reflects a belief that people would rather be texting, checking social media, reading or watching videos instead of having to spend so much of their time steering and braking on increasing­ly congested roads.

Just how long it will take before cars can be trusted to drive completely on their own is a matter of debate.

Google, which has logged more than 1 million miles in self-driving cars since 2009, is hoping to have vehicles that don’t require any human interventi­on on the road by 2020 in licensing deals with establishe­d automakers. Renault-Nissan and most other major automakers believe vehicles will be able to take over the driving only for short periods under certain traffic conditions, requiring a human to still be paying enough attention to take over the wheel when the robotic technology is faltering and unable to respond properly.

Researcher­s have already determined that the transition when a car shifts from robotic driving to human control creates a dangerous situation. That’s because people may not be ready to take over the driving responsibi­lities if they have become too absorbed doing something else while the vehicle was in autonomous mode.

Renault-Nissan believes that hazard will lessen as motorists become more accustomed to what autonomous driving can and can’t do, one reason the alliance is introducin­g its robotic technology in incrementa­l steps, said Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn.

“It’s going to happen in waves,” Ghosn said. “We want to make sure our technology is accepted, understood and used.”

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