Bolstering Silicon Valley’s stature as a center of autonomous-car research, Nissan and NASA have announced a five-year partnership to develop self-driving vehicles here.
They plan to begin testing the vehicles later this year at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, with the goal of incorporating what they learn about self-driving technology into everything from commuter cars to NASA’s Mars rover. They added that some of the innovations they develop will appear in Nissan’s existing fleet of vehicles next year, and that new models able to drive themselves in busy cities will be sold commercially by 2020.
“This is a very exciting collaboration,” said Ames Research Center Director S. Pete Worden, when asked why NASA wanted to partner with the carmaker. “We’re finding in a lot of different areas that the private sector has come up with some pretty clever solutions that we haven’t thought of.”
Worden said NASA expects to incorporate what it learns from the partnership in many of its space vehicles. Noting that the Mars rover sometimes blunders into treacherous terrain, for example, he said the agency hopes Nissan will help it improve the rover’s ability to avoid such problems.
Nissan, which already has been testing autonomous vehicles at its Silicon Valley Research Center in Sunnyvale, Calif., also believes it can benefit from working with NASA.
Impressed by the agency’s ability to design space vehicles that operate nearly flawlessly millions of miles from Earth, the carmaker hopes to learn how to build that same reliability into its self-driving autos, according to spokesman Jeff Kuhlman. In addition, he said, Ames Research Center has expertise in information security, which is important, given fears that cybercrooks might try to hack into and remotely take control of autonomous vehicles.
As a result of the partnership, Nissan within 18 months believes it will be able to outfit many of its existing models with the ability to speed up, slow down and stay in the same lane on highways without human intervention, Kuhlman said. Within three years, those vehicles also should be given the ability to autonomously switch highway lanes, he added. And by 2020, Nissan’s goal is to introduce a car that can drive itself in congested urban areas.
Mountain View-based Google, which also is testing its most advanced self-driving car in the same area, declined to comment on Nissan’s plans to use the facility.
Besides Google and Nissan, five other companies have obtained permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars. They are Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, Volkswagen, Bosch, Delphi Automotive and Mercedes-Benz.
The reason for broad interest in the technology is money. The Boston Consulting Group has estimated that by 2025, the market for autonomous cars will total $42 billion.