Published on September 17th, 2013 | by Guest Contributor4
The New Autonomous Electric Nissan LEAF (CT Exclusive)
Article by EV expert Paul Scott
Monday night’s email from Nissan inviting me to visit the El Toro Marine Base on Wednesday was too good to be true. Nissan was going to have the new autonomous car, an electric Nissan LEAF, available to drive. Whoops, I guess “drive” is the wrong word. I’ll be driven in it.
As if that weren’t more than enough to convince me to make the long drive into Orange County, they sweetened the offer with the possibility of a test drive in the Nissan Leaf Nismo Race Car. This is a full-out race car with a LEAF power train inside a carbon fiber and aluminum chassis and a seriously tweaked racing suspension.
Of course I’d go.
Since they had a fast charger on site, we didn’t hesitate to take the LEAF on what turned out to be a 150-mile day. With cruise control set, Zan Dubin Scott (my friendly ex) and I headed south on the 405, finalizing plans for our third annual National Plug In Day. We were already excited. That event has climbed to some 90 cities, plus Mexico and Holland.
El Toro is a former Marine Base with an airfield. Much of it is being turned into a large park, but there are many activities of all kinds there, and because of the very large runways, its often used as a location for car companies to conduct test drives.
There were three main sections, the autonomous cars (“auto autos”?), a race track, and some big dirt hills for the 4X4 crowd to test the climbing ability of the trucks.
We started with the auto autos, which I’m going to call robot cars. I don’t care for that term, but it’ll do till we come up with something better.
The car in question was a converted 2012 LEAF.
There were rectangular openings around the car that held lasers used to accurately measure everything around the car. Notice the small round button-sized holes, they contain sonic sensors that I suppose echo locate like bats.
Zan and I along with two Nissan fellows climbed in the car. Other than two additional iPad-sized screens, the car was normal on the inside.
The driver started normally, but very quickly set the computer in charge and the car was then being controlled by computer codes that knew how to deal with most anything the car could encounter on this particular test track. Several cameras, lasers and sonic sensors “read” the surroundings pretty accurately.
The acceleration was smooth up to the posted speed limit (cameras captured the speed limit sign and the computer understood what it meant). The car tracked the white lines on the road perfectly. At one point, a human dummy was rolled quickly into the path of the car and the car took immediate evasive action. We ended by climbing onto a platform and viewing the car park itself. The rider got out of the car and the car drove itself down the row of cars, stopped while another car left a parking space, then it drove past that space and backed right into it – perfectly in one try. I asked why they had it back in and not from the front. I was told because it’s harder to back in and they wanted to show that they could do it perfectly the hard way.
All in all, this was an eye opening experience. Nissan announced that they will have autonomous cars in the market by 2020. That’s essentially six years, plenty of time to perfect the technology.
I’ve been following robot cars since reading this fascinating 6 part series in Forbes about 8 months ago. I’m convinced this technology will dominate vehicles inside of 30 years. Depending on global political circumstances, it could happen much sooner. Cost will be the primary driver. Electric robot cars are going to be extremely efficient. They’ll be programmed to hypermile. Many people will simply subscribe to a taxi/ride share program where a car is sent whenever you need it at a cost per mile less than owning your own car. And if you’re willing to carpool, it’ll cost much less.
You won’t need to maintain or wash a car, never take it to a gas station, never have to find parking, just get dropped off right at the front door and walk in. Keeping a car at home is expensive. If you have a garage, or a dedicated parking space, you pay a lot of money for it. If you could build a house without a garage or even driveway, you’d save money. If you could rent an apartment or buy a condo with no garage, it would cost you much less.
The cars will be much safer. Last year in the U.S., there were about 6 million crashes costing a staggering $160 billion! Car crashes are the top reason of death for four to 34 year olds, and 93% of accidents are due to human error, typically inattention. Most of that will go away when computers control the driving. You can text all you want, the computer doesn’t care.
I’m very pleased that the company I work for is a leader in this technology. With Google, Tesla, Mercedes, Toyota and GM, all getting into this space, it’s only a matter of time before computers begin controlling some of the more wasteful and dangerous activities of humans. This will be a very good thing.
The icing on this cake was next. The Nismo LEAF was ready to go.
And I wasn’t going to keep it waiting.
There was no air conditioning, so we kept the doors open while awaiting our turn.
The ride was thrilling in the truest sense of the word. While acceleration was much better than a stock LEAF due to the lighter weight, I’m used to Tesla acceleration, and it doesn’t measure up there, probably a tad under 6 seconds 0-60, still very decent for an 80 kW motor. But when we got to the turns, Oh, momma, this car could take anything! I was given permission to take another lap since I was afraid to push it on the first. The second lap was much faster; the car would literally take 90-degree turns at close to 50 mph!
When I finished, my passenger, who had been telling me exactly where to floor it and where to brake, told me to switch sides. He then proceeded to take me through the same course at a much higher speed. You are held in by four-point straps that are essential when cornering under such high G-forces. This fellow could drive! We were almost flying through the turns! Apparently, he races this car for a living. Some job! To date, this is the most fun I’ve ever had driving a car.