From NASA Mission Control to the driver’s seat – the man behind Nissan’s ProPILOT

Maarten Sierhuis, former NASA researcher, now focuses his efforts on the artificial intelligence that's helping power the future of Nissan's autonomous vehicles.

Autocar Pro News Desk By Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 21 Jul 2016 Views icon5529 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
From NASA Mission Control to the driver’s seat – the man behind Nissan’s ProPILOT

Nissan Motor Co revealed the all-new fifth-generation Serena minivan last week, which is scheduled to go on sale in Japan at the end of August. Importantly, it is the vehicle which debuts the carmaker's ProPILOT autonomous drive technology.

Space was not the final frontier for computer scientist Maarten Sierhuis.

The former NASA researcher, who once designed human-robot interactions and developed collaborative intelligent systems for space exploration, now focuses his efforts a bit closer to home: the artificial intelligence that's helping power the future of Nissan's autonomous vehicles.

But the passion that carried the robotics and artificial intelligence expert to the apogee of the US space program hasn't cooled with his move to an earthly job as director of the Nissan Research Center (NRC) in California's Silicon Valley.

"Bringing this new technology to society, it will change so many things," says Sierhuis, a native of The Netherlands who has lived in the US since 1989. "And call me crazy, but for me, part of my drive of wanting to be thinking about these kinds of problems is that I want it to be done right."

Autonomous vehicle strategy

Sierhuis' has a people-first approach that's very much in line with Nissan's autonomous vehicle strategy, which is focused on providing drivers with new choices on the road toward a fully "self-driving" vehicle, which the automaker believes is at least a decade away.

That means building cars and trucks in the coming years that will allow the driver to choose whether to turn over command to automated driving systems at various points during a journey or remain in control throughout.

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Even when the driver is controlling the vehicle, the autonomous features must continue to monitor conditions and, in the event of imminent danger, assist the driver in avoiding an accident.

Sierhuis, who holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of Amsterdam, says his team will apply anthropologic learnings to the design of the autonomous systems — a strategy that he has employed since the early 1990s, first at NYNEX Corp. (now Verizon) and later at NASA.

That means studying how humans interact with the systems and ensuring that we "build systems that are good for people," he says.

Nissan’s ProPilot tech

The first of the autonomous drive technologies was introduced this July. Known as "ProPilot", it allows cars to drive autonomously and safely in heavy, stop-and-go traffic on highways.

In 2018, Nissan expects to unveil a "multiple-lane control" application that can autonomously negotiate hazards and change lanes during highway driving. In 2020, it plans to add the capability for the vehicle to navigate city driving and intersections without driver intervention.

By that time, the Renault-Nissan Alliance plans to launch more than 10 models with significant autonomous driving functionalities in the US, Japan, Europe and China.

Sierhuis’ team in Silicon Valley is one of many Nissan and Renault teams working on the autonomous vehicle program around the globe, uses his daily hour-long commute from his home in San Francisco to the research center in Sunnyvale to show the advantages such a flexible system will offer.

"The only thing I really enjoy about commuting is that that's the time that I have to myself," he says. And if the car can drive him part of the way, "that would be to me the best thing that can happen."

For the love of driving

Drivers will have productive or relaxing options for that newfound downtime: Nissan plans to roll out a suite of connected services over the next several years, including smartphone integration, access to the environment and traffic information through on-board communications systems, and remote interaction with the vehicle via a mobile app.

"Driving through the desert with camels on the road … I literally almost drove into a sandbank because I thought I saw water on the road in front of me (that turned out to be a mirage). That was an experience I will never forget."

But Sierhuis, who says he has loved driving ever since his father taught him on jungle roads in South America as a teenager says some stretches of road will definitely call for a human hand on the wheel.

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For example, he recalls the "incredible experience" of driving the nearly 240 miles from Dhahran to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia with his father in the early 1980s.

"Driving through the desert with camels on the road … I literally almost drove into a sandbank because I thought I saw water on the road in front of me (that turned out to be a mirage). That was an experience I will never forget."

Contrasts like that help him explain autonomous driving to friends or acquaintances who say they aren't sure if they're comfortable turning over command of their vehicle to a machine - even one that's designed with their comfort and safety in mind. It's all about choice, he tells them.

"I'm one of those people. I want the capability to drive myself and I want the capability to be driven," Sierhuis says. "And I will decide which capability I want to have happen at that moment."

You want to know: What does an anthropologist bring to autonomous driving design?

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