Nissan seeks fresh ideas on autonomous cars
Maarten Sierhuis, formerly of NASA, heads Nissan's driverless-car effort.
Nissan believes it can have autonomous "self-driving" cars in showrooms within a decade, thanks in part to a newly opened research center in California's Silicon Valley.
The company has opened an advanced r&d center in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the heart of the San Francisco Bay computer industry, which will have 60 researchers focused on autonomous technologies.
But to propel the automaker's thinking, Nissan won't staff the project with experienced vehicle engineers. Instead, it will tap the nonautomotive world for new ideas and approaches to vehicle technology, says Carla Bailo, Nissan Americas' Detroit-based senior vice president for r&d.
"We don't want these people to be from the auto industry," Bailo says of the planned jobs. "I envision a very diverse group from different industries to provide us with a new gene pool. We want their innovative and fresh ideas."
In a hiring move that sets the tone for the research center, Nissan has recruited a former NASA scientist, Maarten Sierhuis to lead the project.
A specialist in the field of artificial intelligence, Sierhuis made his first visit to an auto plant only last month when Bailo took him on a tour of Nissan's U.S. operations.
In addition to working with NASA, Sierhuis was a professor at a university in the Netherlands and has worked with Xerox, IBM and the telecommunications company NYNEX.
Bailo: Seeks “a new gene pool”
Bailo says the Silicon Valley area, where many of the world's leading computer and software companies are clustered, offers a rich pool of potential talent. Nissan's new office also will be working through r&d partnerships with a group of universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A number of automakers now believe that a market will emerge for autonomous vehicles, which are capable of driving and parking themselves according to a passenger's commands.
But Bailo cautions that a myriad of side issues must be resolved first, concerning safety, vehicle communications, highway infrastructure, insurance rules and regulatory policies.
The Sunnyvale center also will work on vehicle-to-vehicle communications and on improving the way drivers interact with technologies inside their cars.
The new office will be focused on Nissan's North American business, she says, and will report directly to her in Michigan.
"We're going to be doing things that are not the way we've been doing them," Bailo says. "We want this group to be innovative, and that's people with outside experience."
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