Tech’splaining: Nissan ProPilot Advanced Driver Assist

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Nissan ProPilot Assist is the Japanese automaker’s first step towards a driverless future. This is not hands-free driving, however. The system is designed to work in cooperation with an attentive driver, someone who remains focused on the road ahead.

Nissan ProPILOT Assist technology reduces the hassle of stop-and
Nissan ProPilot Assist represents an important step towards autonomous driving. We at Ride would like to point out, even when using Advanced Driver Assist Systems, you should have your hands at 9 and 3 or 10 and 2 on the wheel, not the 10:15 and 4:30 nonsense in a professional photo provided by a car manufacturer. Photo: Nissan USA

Take this as a warning, anyone hoping to post inappropriate YouTube videos involving a Nissan hurtling down the highway with ProPilot: Sorry social media darlings, your car is not going to play along. ProPilot is engineered to make certain a driver has their hands on the steering wheel. Future versions of the system will monitor the driver’s eyes, to make certain emails or nap time don’t take precedence over safe driving.

How Autonomous Is ProPilot Assist?

The system is a Level 2 driving aid, according to the five different categories defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). This means ProPilot is a “hands-on” device, one where the driver maintains some control as the car regulates functions such as speed, braking, and steering input.

This is not meant to be a self-driving system, a fact driven home by Nissan’s use of the word “Assist.”

To help put it into perspective, it’s important to understand what these levels mean in the first place. Level 1 will have items like active cruise control, or parking aids help position a vehicle into a spot. These systems still rely on some form of manual driving input, be it steering, braking, or acceleration.

At Level 5, the Holy Grail of autonomy, the vehicle will drive you anywhere, anytime, without any human intervention. That does not exist at the moment and, despite hype surrounding the idea, it likely remains many years into the future.

Nissan ProPILOT Assist technology reduces the hassle of stop-and
ProPilot is activated with the push of a blue button mounted on the steering wheel. Photo: Nissan USA

How Do I Turn It On?

Thankfully, you don’t need a degree from MIT to use ProPilot.

In fact, if you’ve driven a car with cruise control – particularly intelligent cruise control, which can maintain a set distance to the car ahead – you’ll be comfortable using ProPilot Assist.

Don’t get us wrong, some assimilation is needed, it takes time to put trust into everything the car is doing. This is especially true when traffic congestion looms ahead. The ProPilot system can decelerate the vehicle from highway cruising speeds and bring itself to a complete stop, if needed.

ProPilot can be activated from about 20 mph, though this involves only intelligent cruise control. The lane centering function only operates at speeds between 45-90 mph.

To turn ProPilot on, all you need to do is push a blue button on the steering wheel. The display directly in front of the driver then turns green (from its standard grey), letting you know the system is active. All you need to do is set your cruising speed, adjust the distance you prefer between your car and a vehicle ahead of you, and that’s all there is to it.

What Does ProPilot Do?

In everyday use, ProPilot is meant to take away some of the fatigue that comes with highway driving. If you routinely take long trips on relatively empty stretches of highway, the system could help you feel more relaxed once you reach your destination.

Think of ProPilot as an upgraded version of intelligent cruise control. While these systems monitor braking and throttle input to maintain a safe distance from a vehicle in front of you, ProPilot takes over a degree of steering, too. This means that in the gradual curves of a highway, a Nissan with this system can maintain its course in a given lane.

Nissan ProPILOT Assist technology reduces the hassle of stop-and
A display directly in front of the driver turns green (as seen here) when ProPilot is engaged. Photo: Nissan USA

How Does ProPilot Work?

Compared to some other advanced driving-assist systems, this is pretty simple. Since Nissan doesn’t intend for the system to be used on anything but divided highways with clear lane markings, the technology involved isn’t terribly complex or expensive; one reason the system remains affordable on mainstream cars, such as the Rogue SUV and Altima sedan.

A front radar sensor is located on the grille, while a front-facing camera is mounted on the rearview mirror’s housing bracket. These are your car’s robotic ‘eyes,’ so to speak, and they form the basis of ProPilot.

In use, the lane centering is the part you might need to adapt to most of all. A vehicle with ProPilot activated occasionally feels like it’s drifting from side-to-side in a lane as it reads the road markings and maintains its course.

When Can I Use ProPilot?

To operate at full capacity, ProPilot is best used when lane centering function is available, at speeds between 45-90 mph. While the car will bring itself to an automatic stop if traffic slows, the system is not intended to be used in city driving.

The system is also intended only for single-lane driving, meaning the driver must take control when changing lanes or merging onto an exit ramp.

While there is a lot of buzz surrounding having cars drive us to a destination completely hands-free, the reality is that the technology has definite limitations. Think of this simple rule: If you’re driving in an environment where cruise control feels unsafe, then you should not be considering letting your car take control (ProPilot or otherwise).

What Are The Limitations of ProPilot?

Outside of human intervention when the system is running, there are many factors that limit your use of ProPilot. Most importantly, the system needs to detect it’s on a divided highway and can read lane markings on the road. Rain, snow, mud, and construction zones can all cause ProPilot to default back to human control.

To manually override the system when its operational, simply push the blue steering wheel-mounted button, or operate the steering wheel and pedals. Like in regular cruise control, the system immediately hands driving back to you.

If you’re practicing bad driving habits or, worse still, have become incapacitated behind the wheel, ProPilot has safety systems to keep things under control. If your hands have not been on the wheel for 2-3 seconds, a series of audible chimes and visual warnings start.

Should the driver not respond, the system increases the volume and intensity of the warnings, and will even pump the brakes briefly. If this doesn’t work, the vehicle will turn on the hazard lights and slowly pull the car to a stop in its lane.

That sounds like a scary decision for a vehicle to make on its own. Yet, given the option of having a massive crash while not paying attention, or in medical distress, it’s the smartest and safest choice under the circumstances.

2019 Nissan Rogue
Nissan ProPilot Assist is available in mainstream cars and SUVs, including the popular Rogue sport-utility (shown here). Photo: Nissan USA

How Much Does It Cost?

ProPilot is available on current Nissan models like the Altima midsize sedan, Rogue SUV, and Leaf electric car. Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury division, also has ProPilot available on the Q50 sedan and QX50 SUV.

As a real-world pricing example, ProPilot can be added to the Rogue SL or SV. A Rogue SV in standard front wheel-drive format starts at roughly $26,400, before adding options or available all-wheel drive.

Nissan groups ProPilot Assist into the “SV Premium package,” which includes additional features like a heated steering wheel, 18-inch alloy wheels, electronic parking brake, and intelligent cruise control. Once added, the $1,800 option package nudges the Rogue’s base price to about $29,200.

Nissan's ProPILOT 2.0
Nissan’s second-generation of ProPilot uses far more sensors than the current iteration. This system allows true hands-free driving, in limited circumstances. Photo: Nissan

What Is The Future For ProPilot 2.0?

Nissan has already introduced ProPilot 2.0, but the system is currently available only in Japan. Extra capabilities mean extra hardware, and the next-gen ProPilot relies on far more sensors to monitor the vehicle and its surroundings. These include front and side-mounted cameras, front and side radar, sonar sensors located around the vehicle, and an integrated driver monitor.

New innovations allow the upgraded unit to permit hands-free driving, when conditions permit. This moves the system to Level 3 autonomy, though a driver can’t zone out and focus on reading emails or grabbing a cat-nap. A camera-based monitoring system ensures the driver’s eyes remain on the road.

Once again, lanes need to be clearly marked and the system will revert to manual control if it determines conditions are not suitable to ProPilot usage. Expect to see ProPilot 2.0 come to the U.S. sometime within 1-2 years, potentially as a pricier alternative to the existing system.

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