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Building on HumanDrive and ServCity, we get the lowdown on Nissan’s self-driving evolution

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Best place to test self-driving: Nissan UK leads evolvAD last mile trial

Alongside the unveiling of the sporty Concept 20-23 EV, at Nissan Design Europe in London on 25 September, came the announcement that every new Nissan in Europe will be all-electric from now on. Less widely reported was an important update on the evolvAD self-driving project.

Cars of the Future at the Concept 20-23 EV launch at Nissan Design Europe on 25 September

A press release confirmed that, in collaboration with consortium partners Connected Places Catapult, Humanising Autonomy, SBD Automotive and TRL, the CCAV-backed project will use 100% electric Nissan Leaf cars equipped with autonomous drive (AD) technology to study self-driving in urban residential and rural roads.

David Moss, Senior Vice President, Region Research & Development for Nissan AMIEO (Africa, Middle East, India, Europe, and Oceania), said: “We are extremely proud to be a part of the evolvAD project in the UK, working alongside some brilliant partners to test and trial our technology.

“Through Nissan Ambition 2030 we want to empower mobility for everyone, and autonomous drive technologies are critical to this effort as they offer huge benefits in terms of vehicle safety, environmental impact and accessibility.”

Neil Kennett talks self-driving at Nissan Design Europe in Sep 2023
Neil Kennett talks self-driving at Nissan Design Europe in Sep 2023

Self-driving at Nissan Technical Centre

Here, Robert Bateman, evolvAD Project Manager at Nissan Technical Centre Europe (NTCE), in Cranfield, explains more.For background, I’ve been at Nissan for over a quarter of a century, and for the last 12-13 years I’ve been involved in research and advanced engineering projects,” he said. “That covers a wide variety of work, but specifically we represent Nissan in Europe.

“Since 2017, we’ve been working for a group in Japan on autonomous vehicles. The first project was HumanDrive, which mainly involved motorway driving. As part of this project, in November 2019, we did The Grand Drive, still the longest self-driving journey in the UK, around 230 miles from Cranfield to Sunderland.

“After that, we thought, right, we need to go into a city. So, from 2020-23, we did ServCity in Greenwich, using the Smart Mobility Living Lab, the UK government’s CAM testbed in London. That was a significant progression – driving on arterial roads, dealing with more roadside furniture and a lot more pedestrians.

“Another aspect was having infrastructure communicating with the car. For example, getting an input regarding a bus at a standstill around the next corner – our car changed lanes in readiness before anybody else on the road even knew it was there! The car can work autonomously but V2I gives it a competitive edge, a bit of local knowledge. That’s what we were looking for on both HumanDrive and ServCity – the car driving smoothly, like a human.

“Having done highway and city centre driving, the logical next step was the last miles – getting from a rural village onto a motorway or navigating a small urban side street to make a delivery. That’s the purpose of evolvAD, to bookend the first two projects.

evolvAD Nissan Leaf self-driving test car, 2023
evolvAD Nissan Leaf self-driving test car, 2023

Last-mile self-driving

“It involves residential streets, speed bumps, mini roundabouts, width restrictions and, most importantly, dealing with traffic coming in the opposite direction. One of the issues with autonomous vehicles is, because of their safe nature, they will wait. Two connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) coming towards each other is fine – they’ll communicate and give way seamlessly. That might not be the case with human driven cars, so how do you deal with that?

“Other more challenging scenarios are rural lanes with extreme cambers and blind bends. There’s a risk that an autonomous vehicle might drive too slowly, to the extent that it becomes a hazard by frustrating the human drivers. Our solution is for the car to behave like a safe local driver, that’s the aim. When we send people out in our autonomous test cars we say ‘Have an uneventful ride!’, because we want it to feel normal.

“We also test in the US and Japan, but there are features specific to the UK which are harder to handle than the wide roads and bright sunshine of Silicon Valley. They don’t have things like unsynchronized pedestrian crossings. Our colleagues were initially quite shocked when they saw pedestrians dashing out in front of the car, not even at a crossing – people just don’t do that in Yokohama. Nissan realised the UK was the best place to test.

“evolvAD will be a 21-month project, running to March 2025, with the country road work conducted at the CAM testbed at Millbrook. It’s very impressive, the sort of speeds and Gs the vehicle can safely reach there now. It’s not one autonomous vehicle system, it’s multiple systems, and some of these technologies will mature more quickly than others.

Self-driving Nissan evolvAD test car, side view
Self-driving Nissan evolvAD test car, side view

Self-driving growth

“My team has grown considerably over the last six years. Before HumanDrive, in 2017, we had one full-time engineer. Now, we’ve got a group of research engineers, technicians and highly qualified test drivers. We’re responsible for procuring the hardware, developing the software, looking at costs and maintaining the vehicles. It also involves bringing through the next generation of engineers and technicians.

“As well as going through Nissan’s usual rigorous protocols, all our test drivers receive additional training for the specific requirements of autonomous vehicles, like holding their hands off the wheel. One of our technicians also trained as a test driver and is now a fully qualified engineer working with our ADAS team.

“Along with our project partners, evolvAD will support the development of the UK CAV supply base. It will further enhance our autonomous drive technology, a key pillar of the Nissan Ambition 2030 vision to create a cleaner, safer and more inclusive world.”

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Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched Carsofthefuture.co.uk in 2019.