Nissan Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn on stage delivering a keynote speech during the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 5, 2017.(Photo: Mike Snider, USA TODAY)
LAS VEGAS — Nissan is joining other auto makers in stepping up its self-driving car technology. But there's a catch: These autonomous cars still need humans to navigate, its CEO said.
Company chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn, delivering the company's first Consumer Electronics Show keynote address here Thursday, offered more insights to the Yokohama, Japan-headquartered company's strategy. "Many people don't want to give up driving completely," he said. "But what they want is to decide when to drive and when to let the car take over."
While autonomous cars can handle most traffic situations, some could confound the artificial intelligence used by the vehicles. The car company demonstrated during the keynote presentation how a Nissan autonomous vehicle could come upon road construction and would contact a real-life person called a mobility manager — think of them as OnStar on steroids — who uses the car's sensors and cameras to find a safe path for it to proceed.
This Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM) system, developed with technology from NASA, will provide "peace of mind" and is a necessity, said Maarten Sierhuis, a former NASA scientist who now is director of the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley. "Show me an autonomous system without a person in the loop and I will show you a system that is practically useless," he said. "Even fully autonomous vehicles will not be able to handle every possible situation they encounter. The world is too simply too complex."
A Nissan Leaf autonomous vehicle on the CES show floor. (Photo: Mike Snider, USA TODAY)
Back in March 2016, Ghosn said that Nissan and Renault — he is CEO of both sister companies — planned to launch at least 10 vehicles with hands-free, self-driving functionality by 2020. Ghosn reiterated that and delved more deeply into those plans during this speech. "We are facing a transformation on the scale of moving from the horse and carriage to the automobile," he said. "Every auto maker including Nissan is experimenting, prototyping and testing new technologies and new approaches."
Nissan has tests planned for "every level" of autonomous vehicles in the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. "Our goal is to accelerate the time it takes to inject these advancements into the heart of the mass market," Ghosn said.
For instance, Nissan and Renault will work with Japanese Internet company DeNA to begin testing self-driving commercial vehicles in Japan this year with a goal of testing in Tokyo by 2020, he said.
Also in the works is a new Nissan Leaf that will have ProPilot technology on board, which allows the electric vehicle to self-drive itself within a single lane — autonomous abilities that stop short of Tesla's AutoPilot feature, which self-changes lanes after you signal.
Also demonstrated: Nissan's use of Microsoft's AI assistant Cortana in vehicles to reroute drivers to avoid traffic jams and to play music, make appointments and eventually, engage auto parking of the car upon arrival.
Ghosn also announced that Nissan is partnering with non-profit "smart cities" group 100 Resilient Cities. "Many of the innovations we discussed today could ease congestion, increase green space, lower energy cost, among other benefits," he said. "To align technologies, policies and planning, auto makers and cities must work as partners."
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.