Just a few metres into my journey in Nissan’s LEAF electric car, the autonomous vehicle swerved towards the kerb.
It wasn’t exactly the start I was expecting.
But to be fair to Nissan, my driving companion, Tetsuya Iijima, Nissan’s Manager of Autonomous Drive Technology, quickly placed his hands on the steering wheel and took over the car instantaneously.
It was a minor glitch due to a disconnected wire with the computer in the car’s boot. If anything it showed how swiftly the driver can override the vehicle and Nissan immediately provided another LEAF car, modified for self-driving.
The trial in London
The self-driving test is the first major trial for the Japanese carmaker in the UK and Europe, and the first of its kind in the continent for speed and complexity.
It’s a Level 2 (Multi-lane highway) and 3 (Urban Junctions/Intersections) trial, like most other competitors.
Britain was the ideal destination thanks to its flexible legislative approach to testing autonomous vehicles.
Nissan liaised with police and the transport regulator TFL (Transport for London) ahead of the test, handing over details of the ring-shaped route, which took place around the ExCel exhibition centre in East London.
Travelling at up to 50 miles per hour, the Nissan LEAF navigated for a total of 10 km both multi-lane highways and local streets, in actual traffic conditions.
The LEAF is 100% electric (in keeping with Nissan’s “Zero Emissions, Zero Fatalities” motto) and it has been fitted with high-speed computer chips and specialized HMI (Human Machine Interface).
There are 12 cameras fitted on the top, on the side rear-view mirrors and on the hood, while four LiDAR (laser scanners) and five millimeter-wave radar complete the equipment.
What it was like inside
So the first attempt did not go as planned. But from the moment I entered the second vehicle, my driving companion flipped the car from conventional to autonomous mode with the click of an “Enter” button.
From that point onwards, I just needed to trust the kit in front of me as it interacted with surrounding traffic.
And we’re off!
While the GPS-technology is accurate to up to 5m, the camera-based, high-definition map used by Nissan can get to under 20cm.
The map compares the info detected by the 360 degree cameras and wave and laser scanners, and channels them into a coherent structure.
Another screen changes according to the speed.
It has stationary vision when the car stops, identifying the nearest vehicle or pedestrian and classifying them into red and green boxes based on proximity and importance.
The screen also turns into a dynamic map when the car speeds up, showing how fast the car is going.
What it was like on the streets
It felt both exhilarating and scary to be guinea pigs for the first major self-driving test in Europe.
The whole experience went so smoothly, it was as if I’d been trained with this new technology for years.
By the end of the test, I was under the impression of being driven by a very cautious driver, perhaps a learner driver who consistently looks around for clues to help get around London traffic.
There were just a few occasions when Nissan’s driver Iijima-san had to override the autonomous system, when a van and a car unpredictably stopped by the side the road and when the LEAF waited behind a double-decker bus instead of steering and passing on the right.
On both occasions, the driver took over just to err on the side of caution. He admitted to being a bit nervous. We can’t exactly blame him.
The level and range of accuracy when the car accelerates and breaks in heavy traffic and its confidence in negotiating a roundabout or moving between lanes while indicating and merging into a multiple lane, as it automatically picks up speed, is just stunning.
That is particularly the case when travelling in suburban, local streets of East London, where numerous traffic lights and congestion makes the driving experience particularly frustrating — and challenging — for an autonomous vehicle.
Nissan, which already tested the LEAF in Tokyo and Silicon Valley, is planning to release 10 models with autonomous driving functions by 2020.
Other car companies are planning similar trials in the UK. Jaguar Land Rover is planning to test around 100 vehicles in Britain by 2020, while Volvo is also planning a test in London.