Driving towards an autonomous future
If there has been one term -one buzzword- that has been circulating in the auto industry of late, it's the term autonomous; more specifically, autonomous cars. It is perhaps the culmination of all the latest developments in automotive technology, enabling a car to truly drive for its owner, returning the favor of being driven for over 130 years.
But the technology isn't easy to achieve, despite what Hollywood's science-fiction movies would have us imagine. Most of the manufacturers are still a long way away from fielding an automobile that is truly capable of autonomous drive. They were, in fact, beaten to the game by Elon Musk's Tesla with the AutoPilot for the Model S.
Nissan, however, does not consider Tesla to be a competitor, a fact that they shared with us during our drive of their latest achievement, the Nissan Serena with ProPilot technology, in the heart of Japan. It made sense; Tesla as an organization is more IT company than car company, and not necessarily bound by the same rules as most automobile manufacturers.
The Serena, as you may know, is not a sports car, an executive car, or a 4x4. No, it's a Japanese minivan, one intended to move families rather than businessmen in fine suits. At first glance, it's an unusual platform to launch their proprietary autonomous driving technology, but when you stop to think, it makes more sense: parents are more tired and more distracted with the needs of their children, and so, having a system able to competently take over is not only logical, but practical.
The 2017 Serena is an all-new generation of Nissan's popular people mover, and sports a new, more futuristic style, a much improved interior, and a variety of new engines, including hybrid power. Technically, the Serena is no longer offered in the Philippine market, nor is there an indication that it will ever be, but Nissan brought us to their exclusive test track in Oppama to try it out and sample the future with ProPilot technology.
autonomous capabilities, the driver has to keep a hand on the wheel
We took out the Serena to test its abilities. The minivan had decent acceleration and superb smoothness from its 2.0-liter gasoline engine. Yes, it's quite small in displacement, but the Serena wasn't built for high speed or maximum acceleration anyway. The X-Tronic CVT drives the front wheels, though Nissan also has versions that drive all four wheels.
After getting up to sufficient speed and with the lanes clearly marked, the Nissan man next to me told me to activate ProPilot, which I did via some buttons on the wheel. It's an odd sensation, as immediately the wheel starts to take command of the Serena, coursing it through as the road curves to the right and then to the left.
To get it out of the way, this isn't full autonomy... yet. Like Tesla's AutoPilot, Nissan's ProPilot system is about relieving the driver of some of the tasks of actively driving on the highway; using ProPilot does not mean you can just program a destination and have the Serena take over. No, it's about reducing driver load on the highway, particularly on long, monotonous highway drives.
ProPilot was made possibly by integrating the electrical functions of the car such as the windshield camera, the parking brake, the power steering, the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) system, and the ADAS ECU. Basically, it's a very advanced form of adaptive cruise control, but can steer and brake fully on its own. The camera senses the lane markings and adjusts the wheel accordingly to stay in the lane. It also detects the vehicle in front, judges the distance, and adjusts the speed to maintain a certain gap, regardless of the speed that was set by the driver. If the car ahead comes to a complete stop, the Serena ProPilot will stop with it.
The technology is certainly eye-opening, but it has its share of limitations. For one, the driver cannot fully remove his or her hands from the wheel; the Serena can detect if there is no pressure on the steering wheel, and will warn the driver if none is detected. Also, the instructor told us to monitor the ProPilot icon on the LCD screen just in case it goes off; it's odd to have to do that, especially since the point was to reduce driver stress. And lastly, ProPilot in Serena is still the first production phase of the program and can only conduct single-lane autonomous cruising, meaning it can't switch lanes nor can it navigate intersections. The multi-lane ProPilot is projected to arrive in 2018, followed by the version that can handle traffic junctions in 2020.
The future is bright, and potentially autonomous, but judging by how I felt behind the wheel, there is still a ways to go for this technology. For now, it's one heck of a party trick, but not something I would rely on and depend on just yet.
One thing is certain though: the Serena (with or without ProPilot) would be an interesting addition to our comfort-oriented minivan market if Nissan does decide to market it.
Engine: Inline-4, 1997cc, dohc 16V, X-Tronic CVT, with ProPilot technology
Max Power: 150 PS @ 6000 rpm
Max Torque: 200 Nm @ 4400 rpm
0-100 km/h [0-62 mph]: n/a
Top Speed: n/a
Fuel Mileage: n/a
+: Stylish and comfortable, a great technology demonstrator
-: Not available locally, ProPilot still in early stages
C! Rating: 8.5/10
Price as tested: JPY 2,916,000