TOKYO -- Nissan Motor Corp. CEO Carlos Ghosn, who last year pledged to have self-driving cars ready by 2020, readily admits that the technology is a "long way from commercial reality" and a "regulatory minefield."
That is exactly why he wants to hit the technology hard and fast right now.
He hopes that by being first to market with the next-generation assisted-driving functions, Nissan can cement its desired image as a tech innovator. But that won't be easy with other brands also chasing the technology.
Along with other automakers, Nissan is wary of collaborating too closely with Silicon Valley tech companies such as Google for fear of being reduced to a mere purveyor of rolling steel packages for the tech firms' high-value added software, Ghosn said.
"There is always a premium for those who come first. It's important to get it first. It's to come first and associate these advantages with your brand," Ghosn said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. "You are scoring big."
It worked for rival Toyota Motor Corp. in hybrid cars, even though plenty of others followed with their own hybrids, he said. And it worked, he added, for Nissan in zero-emission cars, thanks to its leadership with the Leaf electric vehicle.Product pipeline
To that end, Ghosn outlined a step-by-step product pipeline that will bring the Nissan and Infiniti fleets closer to the 2020 goal. Nissan did not say what nameplates will get the new technologies first. But the Leaf and Infiniti models are expected to be early showcases.
"You're going to see a lot in the Leaf," Nissan spokesman Jeff Kuhlman said, adding that many of the technologies already are being tested in the car.
The autonomous-driving technologies also will make early inroads into cars with electric steering systems, he said, a nod to the steer-by-wire system unveiled in the redesigned Infiniti Q50 sedan. But the real goal is to deploy the technologies across the lineup. "We're not looking only at the upper end," Kuhlman said.
"Some of these technologies are really small steps over what the car already has," he said. He cited cameras, lasers and other sensors. "A lot of the capabilities are already there."
Nissan will deploy two new technologies -- a traffic-jam pilot that will allow autonomous driving on congested highways and an automatic parking system -- by the end of 2016, Ghosn said. A multiple-lane control function that will allow cars to autonomously dodge hazards and change lanes will come in 2018.
That will be followed, by the end of the decade, by a smart-assist feature that will allow Nissan's cars to negotiate city intersections without driver intervention.No sleeping
But don't expect a car that will drive you to work while you snooze behind the wheel. Offering a stark reality check, the Nissan chief disabused the public of that notion.
"Self-driving cars," he said, "remain a long way from commercial reality."
"They are suitable only for tightly controlled road environments, at slow speeds, and face a regulatory minefield," he said. "That is why Nissan is focused on autonomous-drive technologies that we know will work and can be introduced over the next four to five years."
Ghosn's distinction spells out a more sober vision for autonomous driving than that conjured just a year ago. At the time, Nissan executives promised to have autonomous vehicles ready for sale in 2020, inspiring images of latte-sipping drivers with their feet up during their daily commutes.
"I want to clarify that there is a big difference between autonomous-drive technology championed by Nissan and self-driving cars," Ghosn said.
"Autonomous drive is about relieving motorists of everyday tasks, particularly in congested or long-distance situations," he said. "The driver remains in control, at the wheel, of a car that is capable of doing more things automatically."
Ghosn said it is natural for automakers to collaborate with Google in its project to develop self-driving cars and that the industry benefits from Google's breakthroughs. But he warned that automakers must keep a tight grip on the wheel and not surrender the technology running tomorrow's cars to industry interlopers.
"I think all carmakers are extremely cautious about maintaining the control of their own cars. This is a kind of cautious collaboration," Ghosn said. "We obviously don't want to become just a kind of simple common hardware. We want to keep the attractiveness of the product and the control of the product."