Nissan is developing technology that may change highway driving


Nissan's lane-keeping system

  • Works only on straight roads, moderate curves

  • Requires driver to pay attention

  • Is ineffective when turn signal is on

  • At first glance, Nissan Motor Co.'s new Cima sedan is like other luxury cars. It has leather seats. Lots of horsepower. An ample interior. But look closer. Up under the rearview mirror. See the small camera?

    The camera is the only visible evidence of a first-of-its-kind system called lane-keeping support that warns drivers when they begin to drift into another lane.

    The concept is simple. The camera monitors the painted lines on the road. If the car begins to stray out of the lane, a motor automatically steers it back.

    A $3,550 option - available only on the Cima and only in Japan since January - the lane-keeping system shows how far Nissan () has come in intelligent transportation system technology. And it gives a tantalizing glimpse of what could happen in the future.

    For example, lane-keeping could be combined with existing and developing systems - including adaptive cruise control, obstacle and collision detection, and intelligent highway technology - to allow the formation of chains of fast-moving vehicles on highways.

    A U.S. experiment three years ago showed that cars can be grouped to travel safely at equal distances without driver control.

    There are two obvious benefits. Highways could double or triple their capacity. And vehicle efficiency would improve by reducing stop-and-go traffic on congested roads.

    But there are plenty of obstacles before this could become a reality. First is cost. Combining existing technologies to create what essentially would become vehicle trains would raise the price of a vehicle several thousands of dollars.

    Highways would need to be upgraded. And would consumers really feel comfortable cruising at 65 mph in a group of vehicles that are 6 feet apart?

    Seeking safety

    Safety is the driving force Nissan's intelligent transportation technologies. And though the automaker will not say what to expect next, the industry can look to it for clues.

    "Details are top secret, so I can't give you this information," says Takuya Murakami, manager of Nissan's vehicle engineering development group and transportation research laboratory. "Please guess from the ASV-2."

    The ASV-2 is Nissan's Advanced Safety Vehicle, unveiled in Japan in April 2000 to showcase intelligent transportation system equipment. Developed at Nissan's Technical Center in Atsugi City, southwest of Tokyo, the car incorporates lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control and other safety-related technologies to monitor sleepy drivers and warn them if objects are in their car's blind spot.

    Nissan's lane-keeping system is not perfect. It is effective only on straight roads or those with moderate curves. Otherwise, a buzzer sounds and a light flashes on the instrument panel, signaling the driver to manually readjust his or her steering.

    "The current systems activate only at speeds above 65 kilometers an hour and at a radius of curvature of over 1,000 meters," Murakami said. "Because of crosswind and other road disturbances, a vehicle usually doesn't stay in its lane without steering action by the driver. Also, the turn signal will interrupt the system."

    Nissan's adaptive cruise control uses radar to measure the distance to a vehicle ahead.

    The system consists of radar attached to the front of a vehicle and a control unit to the accelerator and brake. It controls the throttle and brake actuators so that a distance is maintained depending on the driving speed.

    A step ahead

    "But Nissan's system goes a step further as it works effectively even in traffic jams, relieving drivers of constant, minute operation of the accelerator and brake pedals," Murakami says. "The computer will recognize moving objects, stop when they see them and adjust the speed."

    Nissan offers adaptive cruise control on the Cima and Primera sedans and wagons as a $580 option. But consumer interest in lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control is low, either because motorists do not understand their advantages or because of cost.

    Nissan has sold only a little more than 2,000 intelligent system options since 1999.

    "Right now, the price is too high," Murakami admits. "Therefore, Nissan's market strategy is to first concentrate on reducing the cost to about $400."

    Nissan is studying making the options available on other models. The company has not made any decisions about its future-product plans.

    Emerging technologies

    Meanwhile, other vehicle safety technology and initiatives are emerging. This year, French supplier Valeo agreed to partner with Iteris, a U.S. software and sensor developer, to develop a system called AutoVue.

    The system tracks visible road lane markings ahead and warns drivers if it detects an unintentional lane departure. But AutoVue uses ultrasonic, infrared and radar sensors for 360-degree surveillance around the vehicle.

    Valeo () says it expects that future generations of AutoVue will be able to detect obstacles, road signs and changes in weather and road conditions.

    That could reduce the effort for a driver, according to the supplier. The linked sensors also form a basis for future collision-warning and avoidance systems.

    In 1998, Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways - a program at the University of California, Berkley - demonstrated that a group of vehicles could operate free of human control on a highway. PATH () installed sensors in eight Buicks. The cars were lined up and directed onto a stretch of Interstate 15 in California, then controlled off site from a single laptop computer.

    A communications network that exchanged information about speed, highway conditions and braking on the highway linked each car. They were spaced about 20 feet apart and traveled at speeds over 50 miles per hour. When it was finished, the experiment showed aerodynamic drag could be reduced as much as 30 percent, which improved fuel economy.

    Next year, PATH plans a similar experiment in the United States with trucks and buses.

    Murakami predicts the impact of intelligent transportation systems on the industry will be immense. The systems will improve safety and lead to improved traffic flow, fewer congested areas and better fuel efficiency. But the technology is expensive. Nissan spends nearly $2 billion annually on intelligent transportation system research.

    "In the long run, ITS technology will be cheaper," Murakami says.

    Huge market

    Steve Usher, a senior financial analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities Asia Pte. Ltd. (), agrees the potential market is huge: "There will be about 5 trillion yen ($41 billion) in ITS by the end of the day," Usher says.Since the technology will remove some of the responsibilities today's driver must take on, automakers are working on providing other activities.

    "These cars will be homes away from homes - little cocoons," says Ichiro Yamamoto, a Japanese consumer who bought a Cima with ITS options. "I get on the highway, set my Adaptive Cruise Control System and Lane-Keeping Support System, take my foot off the pedal and listen to my favorite music. There's no hassle before I go to work."

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