I have the Nissan steering wheel loosely held between my thumbs and forefingers, my feet are placed either side of the pedals and I’m not really paying attention – yet I’m still making gentle progress around a test track.
We’re turning corners, speeding up and slowing down, all without any real input from me because just seconds into my drive, I clicked a button on the steering wheel labelled ‘Pilot’ and let Nissan’s new autonomous driving technology take over.
The system – which Nissan is quick to point out is a ‘driver aid’, not a driverless solution – will be the first to bring this technology to the masses when it debuts on the facelifted Qashqai SUV next year. It is designed to make long motorway journeys less stressful and safer by aiding the driver, and is the first step in the manufacturer’s road map to fully autonomous driving cars by 2020.
Using a camera mounted behind the rear-view mirror, and some clever processing power, ProPilot can take over in stressful traffic jams and keep you moving in a single lane at speeds of up to 62mph.
Not only does it take care of braking and acceleration but it steers for you too, keeping you in the middle of your lane and tackling bends. The system even holds you at a safe distance from the car in front or happily nips along if the road’s clear.
Setting the system in motion is a breeze. Once you’re rolling, you simply hit the steering-wheel mounted ‘Pilot’ button to turn it on, and push ‘set’ to choose the speed you want to travel at, much like cruise control.
On our test drive loop, we followed a Nissan LEAF travelling at speeds of up to 30mph. Although you have to be touching the wheel for it to work, our test revealed just a single finger placed at any point on the wheel was enough for it to carry on working. Take your hands off completely – something you’re not allowed to do by law – and after 20 seconds, warnings start and the system stops unless you put your hands back on the wheel.
Grip the wheel and you can feel the automated steering wheel working, it’s like a force-feedback wheel you’d use while playing a driving simulator game. It certainly doesn’t feel natural.
In traffic jams, the car automatically comes to a complete stop and gets going again but only if the stop is for less than three seconds. Engineers told us that this may well be longer by the time it arrives in the UK to cope with our more sustained jams.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. On two occasions the car drifted off unnervingly to the left of its lane, not enough to warrant intervention but enough to worry the driver nonetheless. We asked an engineer why this happened and he had no real answer, but did say tweaks would be made before it’s rolled out in Europe.
We’ve also got concerns about its maximum speed threshold. At 62mph it would be too slow to keep up with traffic on motorways, where it’s designed to be used. Hopefully a further tweak that Nissan will make before introduction in the UK will be increasing this to 70mph.
Overall, though, the ProPilot system is impressive. It’ll bring technology that’s usually the preserve of luxury cars to the masses, making its debut on top-spec Qashqais costing less than £30,000. Whether the driving public are ready to accept its capabilities – and its limitations – just yet, remains to be seen.