Nissan stepped up and became the first automaker to vow to deliver a market-ready "self-driving" car by a date certain: 2020. An executive promised the company would be "ready to bring multiple affordable, energy-efficient, fully autonomous-driving vehicles to the market" by then.
But will Nissan have a problem meeting this goal as it has for delivering predicted sales volumes of its Leaf all-electric vehicle? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, rivals are likely to begin setting their own public timetables for launching self-driving vehicles.
One thing is for sure even at this point: Automakers themselves have stepped up recently and have begun taking control of a much greater share of the discussion and development of self-driving cars, an idea once dominated by Google with its tests of autonomous vehicles.
For its part, Nissan now plans to roll out autonomous driving technology and make it available across its model lineup within two product generations, or roughly between eight and 10 years thereafter, Nissan Executive Vice President Andy Palmer said, according to the Wall Street Journal. By 2014, the company plans to build a proving ground to test its systems. Nissan demonstrated this week some of its self-driving capabilities at a demonstration for journalists using a modified Leaf.
This isn't exactly a moon-shot promise by Nissan. Other automakers are seconding the notion of the imminent attainability of self-driving vehicles even if they haven't set timeframes on fielding them as Nissan now has. Audi, for instance, is deep into research and development of what it calls "piloted driving" systems and emphasizes that they will be far from cost-prohibitive.
Much of the extra cost of self-driving infrastructure already has been wrapped into today's vehicles as most of the building blocks of self-driving—including radars, cameras, laser scanners and digital infrastructure—have been deployed in systems such as "adaptive" cruise control and lane-wandering-warning systems, Bjorn Gielser, the head of piloted driving for Audi AG, recently told an industry audience. And the cost of crucial components such as sensors and computing power is expected to continue to fall.
But other obstacles do clutter the path to autonomous driving. Regulators are still getting their arms around the implementation of such systems and the liability issues, the Journal noted.
And a recent survey showed that 42 percent of American men surveyed simply thought that self-driving cars were a bad idea. So how would auto brands market a machine to generations of drivers who have gotten used to advertising pitches based on the thrill of doing the driving themselves?
It wasn't surprising that Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn went ahead and authorized the 2020 pledge anyway. He has a history of making bold promises, as Forbes.com noted, and delivers most of the time. Yet Ghosn hasn't been able to conjure up anything close to the level of sales he predicted for Leaf so far because of strong continued skepticism by mainstream consumers in America and elsewhere about buying an EV for everyday transportation uses, though sales of Leaf have tripled this year over last year.
In most other areas, Ghosn's company increasingly is putting its performance where its mouth is. For instance, it is on track to become the world's leading manufacturer of light commercial vehicles by 2016, thanks to the success of its new NV200 compact van and other vehicles.
So while Ghosn may have retired by then, his successor at Nissan might just plan on sitting back and leaving the driving to one of the brand's new autonomous vehicles in 2020.