Nissan’s ProPilot Assist system is not a game-changer in the world of self-driving technology, but it has moved the ball downfield.
Formally introduced to the world today alongside the redesigned Leaf EV, ProPilot is the next iteration of Nissan’s Safety Shield system. Consisting of adaptive cruise control and a lane-centering system, it uses cameras and radar sensors to monitor and react to the vehicle’s surroundings. It will soon be available throughout the brand’s most popular models.
Nissan invited me to test out the system first hand, putting me in the driver’s seat of a Rogue prototype in the middle of Manhattan. From there I drove to the West Side Highway, got up to speed, pressed a few buttons and, essentially let the gray crossover take care of the rest.
Certain aspects of the drive were made noticeably easier by the drive and could see it paying greater dividends on longer hauls, but a few glaring issues highlighted the system’s shortcomings.
ProPilot Assist is a Level II autonomous system, as defined by SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers) International, meaning it requires input from a human driver to handle anything beyond driving in a straight line. In other words: it won’t work without at least one hand somewhere on the wheel providing steering input.
To test this, I (somewhat reluctantly) let go of the steering wheel, hovering my hands just above in case I needed to latch back on at a moment’s notice. Within five seconds a red light began flashing on the dash and an audible alert started spewing beeps at me. Both warnings gradually picked up speed until I grabbed the wheel again.
If I let the warnings run all the way through their progressions, the vehicle would put on its hazard lights, slowed down and eventually come to a complete stop. Anyone who lets the vehicle get to that point, as Nissan’s engineers explained, is clearly incapacitated. So, don’t expect to kick back and read/work/nap while the vehicle does all the work and, as always, do not drink and drive.
While it’s more of a man-machine hybrid system than one designed for self-driving capability, ProPilot Assist was able to take the edge off driving in traffic, particularly the type of gridlock that’s common around morning and evening rush hour—or just any hour of the day on the West Side Highway.
Using a sensor hidden behind the badge on the front grille, my prototype Rogue could detect when the vehicles ahead were slowing down. If the adaptive cruise control is activated, which requires getting up to about 20 mph or so, the ProPilot system can bring the vehicle to a complete stop then start crawling along with traffic without the driver having to put a foot on either pedal. The only movement that’s required is if the car is stopped for three seconds or more, at which point the driver has to tap the gas or the resume button for the cruise control to get things moving again.
Nissan’s traffic jam assist is not the first such feature to hit the consumer market, but it’s certainly a valuable tool because it helps take the tediousness out of congested commutes. The only problem: it only works on highways because it can’t recognize street lights or pedestrians.
Although the full-stop cruise control was the more useful feature, the lane-centering assistance was the most impressive. Other systems can read lane markers and keep their vehicles within them but often that means ping-ponging from side to side, which leaves the risk of sideswiping another vehicle or causing some other type of accident. ProPilot, on the other hand, kept my Rogue in the dead center of the lane.
Even if I tried to steer out of the lane without signaling, the vehicle gave some resistance. This feature can easily be overridden, but it’s nice to know it’s there.
However, this feature also has its shortcomings. For the lane-keeping assistance to work, it of course needs visible lane lines, which are far from guaranteed, especially on the heavily-taxed roadways of New York City. Even on stretches where lines were faded but still easily recognizable to the human eye, the ProPilot’s camera struggled to identify it.
An issue affecting both the lane assist and adaptive cruise control arose at a long lane merge on the Henry Hudson Parkway. The other vehicle crept in front of me slowly but the ProPilot’s cameras were powerless to change course and the radars couldn’t detect it until it was squarely in front of me.
I was able to slow down enough to avoid plowing into my fellow motorist but if I weren’t paying attention I could have easily clipped her rear end. This problem is not unique to Nissan; I recently experienced a similar issue with the adaptive cruise control in a Mazda CX-5. However, it’s a striking example of just how far this technology needs to progress.
If Nissan were to promote ProPilot as a self-driving setting, this would be problematic. However, this system is clearly promoted as a supplement to human drivers, not a replacement for it. Anyone looking for something different should direct their attention to the 2018 Audi A8, which will supposedly feature Level III autonomy.
Look for the ProPilot Assist option to pop up throughout Nissan’s most popular vehicles in 2018.