YOKOHAMA, Japan — Nissan has long stressed the necessity of keeping your hands on the wheel when using its ProPilot Assist semi-autonomous driving technology in the United States.

But it is now touting truly hands-free driving as early as this fall in its Japan home market. That’s when the second-generation ProPilot system arrives, fulfilling Nissan Motor Co.’s promise to launch a self-driving system with automatic navigation for highways by the end of the decade.

Unveiled last week as ProPilot 2.0, the upgrade makes several advances over the current system, which has been sold in 350,000 vehicles worldwide since hitting the market in 2016.

Chief among the advances will be delivering pure hands-off highway driving from on-ramp to off-ramp. The system will switch lanes, pass other cars and help with lane exiting.

The current system doesn’t allow lane changing or take orders from the navigation system to drive itself to a chosen destination. And in the U.S., a circumspect Nissan tacks the word “Assist” onto the ProPilot name so as not to engender a false sense of security in its limited abilities.

The new technology will keep Nissan at the head of the pack in the emerging field of autonomous driving, a key focus of Nissan’s brand-building strategy, said Tetsuya Iijima, general manager of the automaker’s autonomous driving development department.

“All of the functions are the world’s highest level,” Iijima said last week during a briefing here at Nissan’s global headquarters to unveil the new system. “It is going to be very difficult for others to top this and overtake us. We have integrated the most advanced-level technologies.”

ProPilot 2.0 integrates a collection of seven cameras, five radar sensors and 12 sonar sensors. It tops the package off with a 3D high-definition navigation system. However, it does not use lidar, the laser-based sensor technology that is now the rage in the autonomous driving world. Iijima said Nissan’s amalgam of sensors and mapping is just as good.

But there are still a few caveats;

  • The system allows hands-off driving only when the vehicle stays in one lane. Japanese regulations require that the driver’s hands be on the wheel when the car switches lanes. ProPilot 2.0 still changes lanes by itself, but the law requires human hand-holding, just in case.
  • The system works only on highways that have been mapped in high-definition 3D. It is this advanced digital mapping that allows the new system to position the car on a road with an ultraprecise margin of error of centimeters.
  • The 2.0 system will be available only in Japan for the time being. Iijima said timing of the global rollout is under discussion. In Japan, it will debut in the Nissan Skyline, a sedan sold in the U.S. as the Infiniti Q50.
  • Drivers still can’t relax too much. The system uses a driver-monitoring system to make sure they are paying attention and ready to resume control in an emergency. So no napping or reading.

A key function of the upgrade is its ability to set a destination in the navigation system and have the car drive itself there, at least over certain highway routes where the technology works. Nissan calls that a world’s first when combined with hands-free driving.

Sensor supplier Mobileye provides the cameras for the new system, and Japanese map-making giant Zenrin Co. provides the 3D, high-definition maps.

Nissan’s autonomous driving push is a forward-looking legacy of Carlos Ghosn, the former chairman who was arrested Nov. 19 and now faces four indictments in Japan on allegations of financial misconduct during his time at Nissan’s helm.

In 2013, while CEO, Ghosn startled the industry by announcing plans to have multiple autonomous vehicles on the market by 2020. Nissan later fine-tuned that plan, saying a multilane-highway-driving system would debut around 2018, with an urban system capable of navigating intersections arriving around 2020.

Autonomous driving is now a key pillar of what Nissan calls its Intelligent Mobility product development strategy, which focuses on electrification, autonomy and connectivity.

Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa said separately last week he wants annual sales of vehicles equipped with ProPilot semi-autonomous driving systems to reach 1 million units in the next four years.

Nissan plans to be selling that technology in 20 nameplates in 20 markets, he said.

Iijima said Nissan will start deploying ProPilot 2.0 to other nameplates next year.

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