YOKOSUKA, Japan — Nissan believes autonomous driving will deliver benefits ranging from safer streets to more efficient commuting.
But the automaker now has another use in mind for the technology — in the form of driverless industrial transport vehicles.
Nissan is deploying two self-driving Leaf electric vehicles at its Oppama assembly plant here to pull about 30 completed vehicles a day across the plant site. Nissan is using the specially modified autonomous versions on a trial basis to pull three cars at a time over the 15-minute drive to a shipping port, less than a mile away.
The two Leaf transport vehicles make an average of five trips a day, Nissan said. The plant produces about 1,000 vehicles a day.
The idea of using its flagship electric vehicle as a beast of burden is more a technology exercise than a strategy to improve factory workflow.
Nissan’s goal is to have a fleet of seven self-driving Leafs in operation around the clock by 2019. The company reckons that would be enough to move all of the cars produced each day by Oppama. If the system works, Nissan says it may introduce it at other plants.
But the experiment also raises questions. The most obvious is why Nissan would use a costly consumer-ready Leaf — complete with back seats, rear doors, air conditioning and an entertainment system — as a glorified robot tow vehicle.
Nissan says the Leaf’s array of cameras and laser scanners give it more flexibility and autonomy than traditional automated guided vehicles, which often rely on magnetic tape or rails to find their way.
But more sophisticated automated guided vehicles use sensor guided systems, and in any event, it would be much cheaper to use the Leaf system in a vehicle that’s not an actual Leaf.
At first glance, Nissan’s latest autonomous driving gambit might seem like a gimmicky make-work program for the slow selling EV. And the experiment remains glitchy for now.
In a demo for journalists on Monday, Dec. 5, the first Leaf out of the gate froze in its tracks when it was supposed to turn into a lot to unload the three vehicles it was towing. A worker had to climb into the “self-driving” vehicle and manually pilot it into place.
Other demos worked fine, but the hang-up underscored the challenges facing the new technology.
Nissan Vice President Kazuhiro Doi assured reporters that it was the first time such a problem had hit its so-called Intelligent Vehicle Towing system. He speculated that signal interference from the assembled journalists’ cellphones and TV cameras might have impaired the Leaf’s electronics.
The concept also still requires human workers to drive the finished Oppama cars onto the Leaf’s trailer and then off again. Another human is needed to operate a remote control center to oversee the operation and help the Leaf negotiate right-of-way at intersections.
Nissan executives acknowledged that reducing the intelligent towing system’s cost remains a huge hurdle.
“We have come to realize once again how difficult it is to deal with driverless systems,” Doi said. “There are many things we can learn from these experiences.”