For Nissan, the future means driverless cars

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Nissan Leaf 1
The Nissan Leaf brought EVs into mainstream use. It is now poised to be introduced to car owners in seven Asia-Pacific markets. -- BRIAN M. AFUANG

AT the start of the Nissan Futures program on Feb. 6, in Singapore, Nissan announced it would introduce the second-generation Leaf EV — unveiled in October 2017 in Japan — to seven Asia-Pacific economies, namely Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. This move is significant; Nissan brought out the original Leaf in 2010, selling more than 300,000 of this all-electric car since then (the figures represent the most garnered by any EV ever). But the deliveries were confined largely to the US, Japan, Canada and parts of Europe, a stark contrast to the car maker’s plans for the second-generation model.

Yutaka Sanada, Nissan’s regional senior vice-president, said the car maker is “working to bring the new [Leaf]… to as many markets as possible,” and that the prospect of launching the model in Indonesia and the Philippines is also being “explored.” Nissan is “studying demand” for its all electric model in two of Southeast Asia’s largest vehicle markets, according to the executive.

To generate demand, Nissan said other factors need to be considered before the Leaf can enter the Philippines — or any Southeast Asian market, for that matter. And the majority of these factors can be gleaned in the results of a Nissan-commissioned Frost & Sullivan study regarding Southeast Asians’ awareness on EVs.

According to the survey, respondents in the region said they expect their respective governments to promote EV use by dangling incentives like designating special lanes and parking spaces, and cutting taxes on EVs. But more than government incentives, most respondents voiced concerns over the safety of an EV’s battery, as well as access to charging ports at home and in the workplace, and the speed at which EV batteries can be charged, as weightier considerations in buying an EV.

Interestingly, the study found the largest percentage of respondents in the region who would consider buying an EV comes from the Philippines — 46%, as opposed to the Southeast Asia average of 37%. Also, respondents from the Philippines were the most concerned regarding the source of the electricity that charges an EV’s battery.

Apart from the full exemption from the newly imposed excise taxes now enjoyed by all-electric cars in the Philippines, what could also create a convincing business case for the Leaf to enter the country — enough actual demand to make it worthwhile for Nissan to bring the car in — is the installation of a charging network. Mr. Sanada said Nissan can “explore [putting up] charging stations in [its] dealerships” if the demand is present.

For his part, Rommel T. Juan, president of the Electric Vehicles Association of the Philippines, who served as a panelist in the Nissan Futures discussions, guaranteed; “Once the [EV] car is there, charging stations will be there, too. It doesn’t have to be a race for which should get there first.”

The more important role for the Leaf, however, is not merely to spearhead Nissan’s thrust into mainstream EV use, but also to prop the brand’s autonomous driving technologies, all of which based on electric-powered mobility. Nissan Futures’ theme, after all, revolved around “electrification and beyond.”

Nissan Leaf 2
The new Nissan Leaf, launched in October 2017 in Japan, is expected to hold its position as the best-selling all-electric car in the world. Aptly, the model takes the center stage at the Nissan Futures presentation held on Feb. 6-7 in Singapore. — BRIAN M. AFUANG

The Leaf, said Nissan, is the “icon” of its Intelligent Mobility program, which studies the changing ways at “how cars are powered, driven and integrated into society.” Put another way, the program involves developing EVs that can evolve into autonomous driving cars capable of communicating with their occupants, other vehicles on the road, and the infrastructure surrounding them.

Nissan has already made strides in its development of self-driving technologies, equipping some of its cars with systems like autonomous single-lane driving and automatic parking. The car maker early last year tapped the services of NASA for its Seamless Autonomous Mobility feature, which relies chiefly on Artificial Intelligence so that self-driving cars can better handle unpredictable situations. In December 2017 it announced plans of testing, beginning in March, a driverless “robot taxi” service — considered by auto companies as a key area for the technology — on the streets of Yokohama, Japan. At this year’s edition of CES, an annual exhibit of the newest consumer technologies that has become the latest venue for car makers in which to showcase their wares, Nissan demonstrated its brain-to-vehicle system that, essentially, lets the car interpret its driver’s brain signals. And Nissan has declared its intention to put on public roads fully autonomous driving cars by 2022.

But such projections, according to Niels de Boer, program director at Nanyang Technological University’s Center of Excellence for Testing and Research of Autonomous Vehicles, and also a panelist in the Nissan Futures discussions, are “very aggressive, very bold.” Forecasting fully autonomous driving cars may be available for mainstream use only around 2050, Mr. De Boer, however, qualified that targets set by car makers mean only field-testing the technology on a limited scale.

“[One must] ask ‘what do you really mean by autonomous driving?’” he said, noting that existing technologies found in cars today, like smart cruise control and self-parking, can already qualify them to be labeled as autonomous-driving.

Sharing Mr. De Boer’s view were fellow conference speakers Kazuhiro Doi and Ogi Redzic.

“‘Autonomous’ have many meanings, different applications… with the primary consideration being safety,” said Mr. Doi, global director at Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. For his part, Mr. Redzic, senior vice-president for connected vehicles and mobility services at Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, maintained autonomous vehicles are in “commercial use already… based on some definitions of ‘connected’ and ‘autonomous.’”

In which case, the future is now. — BMA