Yusuke Goto would have crashed his Toyota Crown five years ago if the premium sedan hadn’t detected the 45-year-old was veering off and righted the steering wheel. So when he found similar features in the cheaper Nissan Serena minivan, it was an easy choice.
“Earlier you could only find such features in premium sedans but I have a big family and I want to make sure they are safe when we drive for a weekend getaway,” Goto said on a recent visit to a Nissan showroom in Tokyo with his family. “I’ve become hugely interested in autonomous driving after that experience.”
At ¥3 million ($27,400), Nissan Motor’s Serena minivan was the first model in Japan in its price bracket that offers what’s known in the industry as “level 2” autonomous driving features, similar to what Tesla offers with its Autopilot function in the $80,000 Model S. A car with level 2 functionality can control steering and speed simultaneously without intervention for a short period, allowing the driver to take his hands off the wheel and foot off pedal at the same time.
Nissan chose to debut its autonomous features in its mass-market model instead of the premium Infiniti brand, and the decision has paid off for the automaker. Sales of Serena surged 67 percent in the August-May period to make it the second best-selling model for the manufacturer. A more-than-expected 60 percent of Serena buyers opted for the ProPilot driver-assist system.
Japan’s second-biggest automaker is capitalizing on the response by making the technology available on the refreshed X-Trail SUV, its best-selling model worldwide, that went on sale Thursday. A ProPilot-enabled X-Trail will cost about ¥2.7 million in Japan and about 80 percent of those who have placed orders opted for the self-driving features, according to the company.
“The early success of ProPilot has given us a head start,” said Nissan Executive Vice President Daniele Schillaci, who oversees operations in Japan and Asia. “It’s also a building block for future autonomous drive technologies.”
Nissan is looking to bring the technology to more of its models. The system will be offered on the new Qashqai SUV unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March as well as on the updated Leaf electric car due later this year.
Nissan-Renault is third in Navigant Research’s ranking of leaders in autonomous driving, behind General Motors and Ford Motor.
Sales of Qashqai in Europe, where it sells more than 250,000 units of the model annually, are expected to increase with the addition of the technology, Schillaci said in an email response to questions. The automaker, along with its alliance partners Renault and Mitsubishi Motors, plans to introduce 10 autonomous vehicles by 2020, he said without providing details.
“The question is how can you keep your lead and make sure users of the first generation of ProPilot will want to use your next generation,” said Zhou Lei, a Tokyo-based partner at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting. “A head-start is good, but at the end of the day, who laughs last are those who can develop the best fully autonomous systems.”
The new Serena has helped Nissan outsell Honda in Japan, excluding minicars, for the first time in three years. Nissan plans to add autonomous-driving functions step-by-step, enabling cars to change lanes on their own in 2018 and subsequently navigate urban roads, including intersections, by 2020.
The ProPilot available on the Serena uses a mono camera and advanced image processing software. It enables the minivan to accelerate, brake and navigate highway stop-and-go traffic in a single lane and sends warnings when drivers take their hands off the wheel and will eventually disable if the prompts are ignored for a few seconds.
Toyota Motor, Honda Motor and Subaru now offer level 1 autonomous features such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping that don’t allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel and feet off the pedal at the same time.
Customers like Goto said they are already looking forward to improvements in the driver-assist features. The leather-goods company owner, who owns a collection of classic manual cars including a 1960 Fiat 600, switches on the ProPilot every time his Serena hits the highway.
“It’s a different kind of driving fun,” said Goto. “Now when I’m driving a car without ProPilot and get caught in a traffic jam, I always wish the car was a Serena.”