Why Nissan is joining the lidar bandwagon

Industry

YOKOSUKA, Japan – Nissan Motor Co. is showing off a next-generation lidar system it says will let vehicles conduct high-speed emergency maneuvers without a hand on the wheel or foot on the brake.

The advanced driver-assist system will debut in the mid-2020s and is part of Nissan’s push to equip nearly every new model with lidar safety technology by the end of the decade.

Engineers previewed a prototype here last week at the company’s Oppama proving ground south of Tokyo. In demonstrations, a Nissan Skyline sedan equipped with the system dodged errant cars, rolling tires, road debris and stopped for mannequins darting into the road.

The speeding Skyline was able to perform the safety maneuvers all while cruising at clip of up to 100 km/h (62 mph), even with no human driver controlling the car.

The system also has a lidar function that enables the car to self-navigate in areas — such as hotel drop-off roundabouts — where there are no clearly defined maps or road markings. This uses something called Dynamic SLAM, short for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping.

Tetsuya Iijima, the general manager in charge of driver-assist technologies at Nissan, said no other manufacturer had developed a lidar-based technology capable of such high-speed, super-agile autonomy. Current systems, he said, cover only routine driving under predictable conditions.

The technology, which builds on Nissan’s ProPilot autonomous driving technology, is key to achieving a “secure autonomous driving” that can stop a car in any situation, Iijima said.

Even in Level 3 automated systems, for instance, drivers must still be ready to take control in a pinch. To Nissan, that puts an unnecessary burden on humans, who expect greater safety.

“Customers want a car that won’t crash,” said Iijima, who led development of Nissan’s first-generation ProPilot system in 2015. “They expect that in real autonomous driving.”

“A tire could come flying at you on the freeway, and you need to be ready for such a thing even in Level 3,” Iijima said. “But it is very difficult to cover all the combinations of possible accidents. Our challenge is to cover all emergency maneuvers. It is a very high target.”

Nissan demonstrated the technology at speeds ranging between 60-100 km/h (37-62 mph). But the technology is ready to handle cars going as fast as 130 km/h (80 mph), Iijima said.

The test car bristles with 10 cameras, seven radar sensors and one lidar sensor, housed in a giant luggage-rack-like structure. Computer gear packs the entire truck and half the back seat.

The lidar system is being developed with Luminar Technologies, which Nissan touted for its advanced laser sensor knowhow and rapid development plans.

The lidar sensor increases the vertical field of view to above 25 degrees, from around 10 degrees in today’s lidar. It increases the detection range to 300 meters (328 yards) ahead of the vehicle, compared with around 100-150 meters (109-164 yards) in current systems. And it delivers higher resolutions, to a level as detailed as 0.05 degrees, from around 0.1 degrees of resolution.

Nissan is working with Luminar now, but it has not decided on a partner for the production version. It also hasn’t decided whether the lidar system will be branded ProPilot as the next-generation of the company’s popular driver-assist system. The current version is ProPilot 2.0.

Nissan has sold more than 1 million vehicles with ProPilot globally. And the company wants to expand ProPilot technology to more than 2.5 million Nissan and Infiniti vehicles by around 2026.

One challenge is slashing the cost of the expensive lidar technology.

Today, one lidar sensor can run as high as $1,000, Iijima said. To go mainstream, the price tag must come down less than $300, he reckoned. But costs will drop fast, he predicted, noting that radar systems cost above $1,000 when they debuted 25 years ago and now go for less than $100.

But Nissan says lidar is a must-have technology.

“Nissan aims for Level 3, but to do that, we want to perfect these emergency maneuvers first,” Iijima said. “Secure and safe autonomous driving must have this technology.”

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