As the first major auto maker, Nissan has announced that they will develop fully autonomous vehicles capable of navigating even in urban traffic without supervision. Nissan’s Executive Vice President Andy Palmer claims that – unlike Google’s driverless car prototypes – these vehicles will neither require costly 3D LIDARs nor will they need specially created maps for navigation. Nissan intends to bring the cars to the market by 2020.
Nissan wants to build on the successes of its Leaf Electric Car and further associate its brand image with innovation. In the past year, Nissan has taken major steps to accelerate autonomous vehicle development: They moved their autonomous research group from Japan to Silicon Valley and are building a testing ground for urban autonomous driving which is slated for completion by the end of this year.
While most other car companies are active in the field of autonomous driving and some (such as Volvo) have made general statements about fully autonomous vehicles, the Nissan announcement appears to be the first which is accompanied by action.
From an innovation diffusion perspective it is interesting to see that the commitment to fully autonomous technology does not come from one of the the top three auto manufacturers but from a large contender who sees the technology as a means to gain reputation and market share. Nissan does not seem to be concerned about the medium term business implications – a transformation of the car market from individual ownership to mobility service providers and a significant reduction of the total vehicle demand. They may count on a first-mover advantage; in addition, the combination of electric vehicles (the Leaf) and autonomous capabilities might be ideally suited for fleets of locally operating autonomous taxis.
It remains to be seen whether Nissan will be able to master the complexities of urban traffic without the advanced sensors and prior knowledge which Google is relying on. Nissan certainly has the plate full to catch up with Google. But with this action by Nissan and the ever-clearer intent of Google to challenge the biggest auto manufacturers it is probably just a question of months until the next auto makers will jump on the bandwagon. The next revolution in mobility is picking up speed…