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Nissan Sets 2020 Deadline for Self-Driving Vehicles

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On: Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 9:36AM | By: Bill Wilson

Nissan Sets 2020 Deadline for Self-Driving Vehicles

For most people, self-driving cars fit in the same category as jet backpacks, robot butlers, and personal spaceships. While they’re great topics for science-fiction writers, there’s very little chance that they will ever exist in the real world. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn begs to differ, however. He not only intends to build autonomous vehicles, he has announced that they will be available for public purchase by 2020.

To those in the know, including other auto executives, this goal sounds so ambitious as to be ridiculous. While Google has put several self-driving cars on the road, the search engine giant has no plans to market such vehicles to the public. Rather, company heads hope to sell the technology to established manufacturers like Ford, GM, and Toyota.

Car makers have been afraid to take the plunge, however. One reason is that the technology needs a constant connection to the Internet. When the web goes down, so does the vehicle. Nissan recognizes this issue, which is why it’s focusing on creating systems that are fully self-directed.

Car manufacturers' other concern is far more practical. They doubt that anyone will want to buy the units once they’re available on dealers' lots. It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. Autonomous cars need to be seen by the public to prove they’re safe. Otherwise, no one will buy them. However, for the cars to be seen, motorists have to buy them first.

This is unfortunate, because driverless autos could slash the number of accidents that occur on American roads. Wrecks along the nation’s highways cause over 30,000 deaths a year, in addition to nearly $200 billion in damages. That’s not counting the more than two million people injured annually, or the costs of repairing damages to public and private property. If autonomous vehicles were able to reduce these numbers by even a fraction, the benefits for both individuals and the national economy would be astounding.

To achieve these goals, however, Nissan will have to overcome significant hurdles over the next seven years. One of these is the fact that state laws are unequipped to deal with the legalities of self-driven autos. If an impaired motorist strikes a pedestrian, then there are legal procedures to ensure that the driver at fault pays a penalty. But what are cops to do when an autonomous vehicle causes harm? Who should shoulder the blame? Question like these keep politicians and regulators up at night.

Despite these challenges, Ghosn is confident that his company and its partners (including 23 American and Japanese universities) are up to the task. If so, then the payoffs could be immense, both for Nissan and for motorists around the globe. Self-driven cars could help everyone to get where they need to go, both safely and economically. Perhaps the age of robot butlers isn’t so far away after all.

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