TOKYO -- Five years before its target of having autonomous-drive vehicles in showrooms in 2020, Nissan already has engineers driving the streets and highways here with no hands.
The cars steer themselves through Tokyo traffic, accelerating on highways, stopping at red lights and passing other drivers as engineers nervously keep their hands ready to grab the steering wheel.
Occasionally, there is a glitch.
Last week, with an Automotive News reporter watching from the back seat, an electric Leaf fitted with a trunk load of early autonomous-drive hardware misinterpreted two lanes of a city street that oddly merged at a sharp curve. Engineer Tetsuya Iijima grabbed the wheel just before the Leaf smashed into a guardrail.
"We still have some work to do," says an unfazed Iijima, general manager of Nissan Motor Co.'s new 100-member engineering department dedicated to the 2020 goal.
Indeed, the industry's race toward viable autonomous-drive vehicles stands at this juncture: The hardware technology is in place and proven. But sorting out software refinements and devilish details will take countless hours to make consumers confident enough to accept the technology.
"One hundred people?" says Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, executive vice president for technology development across the Renault-Nissan Alliance, when asked about the automakers' efforts to commercialize autonomous driving. He raises his eyebrows.
"No, we have many more people than that working on it," he says.
"How many more?" he is asked.