We take a spin in a self-driving car

We take a spin in a self-driving car

It sounds like something from a science fiction movie: You pull up outside the front door of a supermarket, unbuckle the little ones and slam the doors shut.
As you walk away to find a trolley you blip the key fob... and your car drives off and parks itself. However strange the scenario might sound, the technology that can make it a reality is is already here – and self parking is just one of the tricks up its sleeve.

AOL Cars is currently in California at Nissan's global '360' event – a showcase of the manufacturer's entire array of vehicles and today we've had a taste of the future with a drive around the spralling El Toro airbase in one of the very first autonomous cars.

Earlier this week we reported the Japanese manufacturer hopes to have these cars in production by 2020 – and, as we've found out today, the technology is already very advanced indeed.

​What is it?

An autonomous Nissan Leaf that can drive itself. The throttle, braking and steering is all controlled by a computer that uses feeds from cameras and radar sensors above the mirror, on the side and at the rear of the car to judge distances and hazards. Using sat nav, detailed maps and the live feeds, the car computes information at 100 times the speed of a human brain, spotting hazards before a human eye would even recognise them in a wider field of vision.

How does it work?

You punch in a destination and using GPS navigation and maps, the car drives you to wherever it is you want to go. The autonomous functions can be overridden at any time, but on our test course there was no need. The car negotiated American style 'Stop' sign junctions, where the car that arrives first at the crossroads has right of way – the car simply waited its turn before driving off. It negotiated bends with ease, keeping between the white lines and accelerated up to the legal limit quickly, cruising along and adjusting the steering as it went.

What else can it do?

A lot. On our test we negotiated a parked car in the street even with oncoming traffic thrown into the mix. The car slowed as we approached, and when the traffic on the other side of the road had cleared, it indicated and pulled past. We were shown how it can emergency steer around a line of parked cars to avoid an accident, how it merges with motorway traffic and watched as it drove off to park itself in a bay. It was incredible.

When will it arrive?

Nissan has vowed to put autonomous cars into production by 2020. We met Maarten Sierhuis, director of Nissan's research centre in Silicon Valley, who has just joined the company from NASA, where he was in charge of human-robot interfaces and automatic flight control. He told AOL Cars this project attracted him because "we're not going to Mars any time soon and these cars can make a real difference to the world".

What's holding this technology back?

Clearly it's not the research and development, although Sierhuis admitted there was still a lot to do. What's really in this tech's way is the legislative battle car manufacturers faced getting the vehicles homologated for the world's roads. And secondly it's going to take a bit of convincing to get consumers to trust these self-driving cars. "This technology will come when consumers want it", explained Sierhuis.

What about the joy of driving – will this kill it?

We've all been stuck in a traffic jam and wished we were doing something else. And we've all tackled the same commute to work thinking the time would be better spent answering emails or surfing the web. This technology will make that a reality – it will mean some cars in certain situations will become like trains or taxi cabs, taking you to your destination safely while you focus on doing something else. Autonomous driving isn't about killing the joy of driving, after all, you can still drive these cars if you wish. What it's more about is making them more convenient when drivers want them to be.

Is this the next big thing?

Yes. Make no mistake, this is the future. Google has been investing heavily in autonomous driving cars for years and that global giant doesn't shell out on technology unless it can see a real consumer demand at some stage in the future. Car manufacturers are a long way down the line with this technology and it's very mature already. In fact, it'll be here before you know it – whether you like it or not.

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