TOYKO – Nissan takes another step in its so-called Intelligent Mobility strategy with the rollout of the new X-Trail SUV featuring the automaker’s ProPilot autonomous-drive system, a technology its chief product planner considers competitive with more-heralded self-driving systems from Google and Uber.
Equipped with a windshield-mounted camera to identify other vehicles and lane markers alongside the highway, the Pro-Pilot-equipped X-Trail drives autonomously in single-lane traffic. It performs acceleration, steering and braking to keep the car in the center of its lane. It is activated by the turn of a switch.
The X-Trail is the second Nissan vehicle to incorporate the ProPilot, coming about 10 months after the Serena minivan. Next up is the Qashqai compact CUV in Europe.
Philippe Klein, chief planning officer at Nissan, tells WardsAuto the automaker is on schedule to meet its autonomous-drive targets.
“It is not a fantasy,” he says in an interview. “It is something that we are gradually approaching.”
Nissan plans to expand ProPilot’s capability in 2018 to include multi-lane highway situations. The automaker intends to add urban driving, including intersections, beginning in 2020. The larger Renault-Nissan Alliance is on track to launch 10 vehicles with autonomous-drive functionality in the 2020 timeframe, including the next-generation Leaf battery-electric vehicle, Klein says.
“The building blocks are in place,” he says.
Klein stops short of commenting on competition in the self-driving space, but believes Nissan is competitive with the likes of Google’s Waymo unit, Apple and Uber, which receive a lot of ink for their mobility ambitions.
“I do not see that we have any handicap,” he says. “It is a stimulating environment. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Nissan is in a good position.”
Klein also says there are different approaches to autonomous driving. Ford, for example, wants to skip intermediate levels of autonomous driving and focus on high- and full-automation, while others want to take it step by step. Some also make autonomy central to their business, while others see it as complementary.
“There are (companies) chasing the pure driverless car as a priority,” Klein says. “We are not doing this, which does not mean we are not working on a driverless concept.”
Nissan in January entered an agreement with the Japanese Internet company DeNA to fleet-test autonomous-drive taxis with the aim of beginning commercial operations in 2020. The automaker also is working to adapt artificial intelligence technology first developed by NASA and to introduce connected-car systems jointly with software giant Microsoft.
Another main driver of Nissan’s Intelligent Mobility strategy is vehicle electrification. Nissan’s focus since launching the Leaf in 2010 has been on pure EVs rather than hybrids.
“All the rest is transition,” Klein claims. “From making improvements in the conventional powertrain, including further utilization of downsized, turbocharged engine technology, to 48V and plug-in hybrids. And the transition will be gradual.”
Nonetheless, Nissan remains committed to delivering products and technologies consumers demand, he adds.
“Depending on the market situation, Nissan will be ready, matching the technology to the value for the customer, the price that the customer is willing to pay and the cost to the manufacturer,” he says. “If this is all not properly aligned, the technology usually cannot prevail.”
While pessimistic about plug-in hybrids, Klein acknowledges the addition of Mitsubishi to the Renault-Nissan Alliance could bear fruit.
He points to the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV as “Obviously a good pick in terms of possible synergies.
“But in general, plug-in hybrids, despite offering customers the potential to have an electric vehicle to commute to work and have a conventional vehicle to go on vacation, face difficulties because the technology is costly and complex,” he offers. “They require a conventional (engine), a conventional transmission, a fuel tank, an electric motor and a battery and plug.”
Klein says Nissan considers PHEV technology useful in commercial vehicles in Europe and China, where fuel-economy and carbon-dioxide emissions regulations will be most stringent.
“But we see this more as a bridging technology rather than a technology becoming mainstream for (the) mass market,” he says. “I am not talking about luxury cars, of course.”
Apart from PHEVs, Nissan has been looking at a range of other possible synergies with Mitsubishi since the acquisition in October.
Nissan snapped up a controlling 34% equity stake in the automaker shortly after news broke Mitsubishi had falsified fuel-economy test data on vehicles sold in Japan. Nissan and Mitsubishi previously had been close partners on 0.66L minivehicle development and production.
“Of course, we are considering sharing platforms and modules for next-generation products,” Klein reports. “And we are also considering some specific products such as a small MPV for Nissan coming from technology developed by Mitsubishi in Southeast Asia. This is the kind of environment we are in.”
Mitsubishi in April opened a plant in Indonesia eventually expected to supply a Nissan-badged derivative of a compact MPV. The Nissan version of the model, according to reports, could go into production as early as 2019. Analysts say other models, including a pickup truck in Thailand and a new joint-venture model in the U.S., are being considered.
“Pickup trucks will take a bit longer because both brands’ Thai products are relatively recent, so the potential convergence will come at a later stage,” Klein says.
Mitsubishi enjoys a strong and important historical presence in Southeast Asia and Nissan hopes to benefit from that presence.
“What we're going to try to do is replicate what we have done successfully with Renault in the last 18 years, which is sharing as much as we can (by way of) technologies, components, platforms and modules,” he says.
Klein neither confirms nor denies reports Nissan will introduce a 60-kWh battery by 2020. The automaker introduced a 30-kWh unit in December 2015 and displayed a 60-kWh prototype at the Japan Society of Automotive Engineers Exhibition the following May. Meanwhile, an executive of Automotive Energy Supply Corp., Nissan’s main EV battery supplier, reports it will introduce a 40-kWh battery in 2018 and a 60-kWh unit as early as 2020 or 2021.
AESC is a joint venture between Nissan and NEC, a leading Japanese electronics maker. The 30-kWh unit, which extends Leaf range nearly 25%, was produced first at the automaker’s Smyrna, TN, battery plant.
Klein says cost remains the central issue for raising battery energy levels to 60 kWh or perhaps even 100 kWh, sometime down the road.
“The technology is improving and becoming gradually more affordable,” he says. “But the question is not how much capacity you put into a car, but how much capacity for what price. Making a vehicle with 100-kWh battery is nothing complicated.
“Obviously, we are working to make improvements. We made a big first step when we moved to 30 kWh with a marginal price increase. We expect to make additional improvements,” adding, “The battery is not the only important component of an EV. Others include motors, inverters and power electronics.”
Klein does not disclose Nissan’s battery-cost targets and sidesteps whether the automaker believes the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2022 target of $100/kWh is doable.
“There are a lot of numbers floating around,” he says. “We often don’t know if these are for cells or for battery packs. What we know is that everybody is working to lower the kilowatt-hour cost of the battery. And Nissan is well-positioned.
“We also know that range, per se, is not the biggest issue facing us. If we offer a 500-km (312-mile) range with a price of $100,000, we can’t do business.”
Nissan does expect battery costs over the next 10 years will be halved and energy density will increase 50%.
“So there’s a huge improvement coming,” he says. “We see a similar tendency for hybrid batteries.”
Nissan forecasts 15% penetration for BEVs globally within the next 10 years, driven by a stronger charging network, government support, fleet operators, operations and a younger generation more open-minded about alternative propulsion.