When Carlos Ghosn, head of Nissan, recently announced that he'd sell autonomous cars by 2018, two years earlier than he'd said earlier, few eyebrows rose. In either case, Nissan would be the first off the mark, so it hardly seemed to matter.
Yesterday, though, an engineer working on the project seemed to free up a little wiggle room at an autonomous vehicles conference held in San Francisco.
"Let me say this is an ongoing discussion within the company—what is the right level of technology to bring out first," said Maarten Sierhuis, head of Nissans research operations in Silicon Valley. "As a researcher, I want full autonomy! But the product planners maybe have another answer."
His remark came in answer to a question from the audience.
Sierhuis noted that Nissan's Q50 car is the only one on the market to incorporate "drive by wire" technology, which severs the physical connection between the driver and the wheels of the car. (Unless, that is, there is a system failure, at which point a backup mechanical system takes over, a stopgap that future generations of the car will someday outgrow.)
"We will see increasing capability in the Q50 up until we see autonomy, whether in 2018 or 2020 remains to be seen," Sierhuis said. "Also in the Q50 there is Adas [Advanced Driver Assist System], with collision, braking and lane-changing assistance. You can buy this today, and for less than US $100,000."
That brought laughs from the several hundred engineers in the audience. They'd just heard Ralf Herrtwich of Daimler praise the self-driving powers of his company's Mercedes S Class, the price of which starts a little below the $100,000 mark.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.