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Renault-Nissan Opts for Slow but Steady Path to Self-Driving Cars

The approach contrasts with some opinions that the most dangerous type of vehicle is one that requires a driver to take over some of the time.

Ina Fried for Re/code

While Renault-Nissan is testing fully self-driving vehicles, the company is pursuing an approach that will see autonomous features come steadily into cars over time.

Starting later this year, the French-Japanese carmaker will offer cars capable of taking control while a car is stuck in a single highway lane in stop-and-go traffic. Multiple-lane highway support will come in 2018, with autonomous vehicles capable of navigating intersections and city driving arriving by 2020.

In all, the company says it will launch more than 10 vehicles with some manner of autonomous driving features over the next four years.

“We will implement autonomous driving step by step,” Renault-Nissan executive VP of engineering Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi said Thursday during a press event at the carmaker’s Silicon Valley research facility in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Renault-Nissan’s approach contrasts with some auto experts who believe that incremental change could be more dangerous if drivers have to take over driving at different points, while relying fully on the car at other times.

Group VP Takao Asami said Renault-Nissan is developing the necessary systems to monitor drivers and make sure that they are ready to take the wheel when necessary. A wristband, for example, would monitor vital signs.

Others, including Google, are working on cars that require no driver action at all. Ford CEO Mark Fields says he expects fully autonomous cars to be on the roads in four years’ time while Google has said it sees five years as a reasonable time frame.

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn noted Thursday that autonomous features have already been creeping in, starting with antilock brakes and continuing with features today that keep cars in their lane or brake when a crash is imminent.

Ghosn said that Renault-Nissan, the world’s No. 4 automaker by sales, is being pragmatic, adding that consumers are conservative in adopting new car technology.

“It’s not just because you have beautiful technology the consumer is going to adopt it,” he said in response to a question from Re/code. “There is another conservative population — it’s the regulators.”

In many regions, Ghosn said, even a fully autonomous car still needs a driver with eyes on the road and hands on or near the wheel.

Ghosn also took a few potshots at Tesla and other carmakers, saying Renault-Nissan will focus on electric and self-driving cars for the mass market, not electric vehicles that cost six figures nor those that are just “beta testing” their autonomous software.

“This is a global priority,” Ghosn said, noting that his company has produced more than 45 percent of the electric vehicles on the road, led by the Nissan Leaf. “We’re talking about the bulk of the market and what is acceptable for them to pay.”

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