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The next big things: the future of autonomy by Nissan’s ex-NASA AI guru

Published: 18 July 2016

► Maarten Sierhuis leads Nissan’s research into autonomous tech
► Also explores connectivity and human-machine interfaces
► His views on the future of motoring

> Cars are different to mobile phones. Your car’s like an astronaut’s spacesuit; home, work environment and life support. It’s your personal space, and humans value personal space. People talk about car sharing, and for certain populations that might be fine, but not for everyone. And brand differentiation will come into it. We’re working to develop a control system that’ll make the car drive smoothly and human-like. We’ll differentiate with a beautiful user experience.

> At NASA our division developed the first autonomous spacecraft – if you’re going to fly to Mars you want to do as much of the work as possible autonomously. We looked at the interaction between humans and robots. A good interface is about putting people at the centre, not putting the tech first and hoping people will go away.

> A lot of the issues with autonomous cars are less about the technology and more about how people, society and governments respond to it. It’s about trust. Going back to the robots on Mars, they weren’t very autonomous initially and that was largely because the humans didn’t trust the technology. It’s the same with the car. How quickly we get there will depend on people accepting the idea, and on how governments regulate what we do.

> There aren’t many places where you can work on this kind of autonomous tech for the benefit of humankind. Healthcare perhaps, and autonomous cars. We want to get as close as possible to the point where we’re not having accidents in which people are being hurt. The benefit to the elderly is clear too. The world is getting older.

> I’m not a brand guy but Nissan’s about bringing this technology to everybody. If you want to bring in zero emissions and zero fatalities then everybody needs to be able to use this technology, not just the super-rich.

> I understand the scepticism with connectivity. We’ve been talking about the connected home for 20 years. But in Holland they have an area bigger than San Francisco’s bay area where every traffic light is connected. We’re feeding this into our autonomous system so the car and infrastructure are communicating back and forth, asking the traffic light to extend the green light or, if that’s not possible, re-routing. That’s when connectivity starts to look pretty appealing.

> We need standardisation and collaboration. [Nissan boss Carlos] Ghosn always asks me how can we work together more; what topics can the automotive companies work on together? With connectivity between cars the issue is not the telecoms, it’s the content of the messages; is it useful, is it compatible? Put 20 people at an intersection and get them to text each other at the same time: chaos. We’re working with the city of Sunnyvale – it’s a living lab. Mercedes are just down the road, so we can invite them and learn how our autonomous cars communicate.

> Being able to charge wirelessly while an EV is on the road – that’s what we need for zero-emissions transportation. That’s the next frontier.

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By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

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