For a guy who drives all kinds of different cars, I'm something of a technophobe.
I've never tried self-parking. I'm nervous about self-driving cars — for me. I think they're awesome for most of my fellow drivers, who are often annoying and in the way.
I love cruise control, especially of the adaptive variety. I found our trip to Maine was much nicer as we rolled up 95 and allowed traffic to slow and speed us along like charged particles in an electrical circuit.
Still, I consider myself a much-needed voice of skepticism whining behind an industry plunging headlong toward the unknown.
So it was with more than the usual trepidation that Nissan aimed to ease my own fears of the future with an afternoon checking out ProPilot Assist technology, which it bills as "hands-on-wheel technology" that "reduces the hassle of stop-and-go driving."
The system combines Steering Assist and Intelligent Cruise Control to make heavy traffic or long, open-road situations easier for drivers to endure. Using a forward-facing camera and radar, sensors, and the car's computer, the system allows drivers to stay centered in their lane and to maintain a safe following distance.
"You'll be able to work as a partner with the vehicle getting you from Point A to Point B," said Ryan Rumberger, senior manager for autonomous-drive marketability for Nissan.
The technology will make its way onto the redesigned Nissan Leaf for the 2018 model year, unveiled this month and expected to arrive in dealerships early next year.
Ten models using the system are expected to be available around the world by 2020. Why start with the Leaf?
"The Leaf has tech-savvy buyers, and it has brake-by-wire and electric power steering," said Andy Christensen, senior manager of intelligent-systems research for Nissan. "Integrating this tech [into it] is pretty straightforward."
Nissan is not the first automaker to offer this; BMW, Audi, Tesla, Mercedes, and Honda are among automakers featuring similar level 2 autonomous systems in several models.
The test of the ProPilot Assist experience in Manhattan offered some of the most challenging conditions in the United States — where stop-and-go is often more like stop-stop-stop-and-go-stop (describing a Lincoln Tunnel experience I had a few years back).
Mr. Driver's Seat remains calm testing a wide variety of vehicles in many situations, but the ProPilot Assist drive made me as nervous as I am before track racing. I wondered what the car would do and how I would be able to keep attuned to what was happening — and control the Rogue retrofitted with the system. (Nissan liked testing it in the ubiquitous Rogue, saving lots of money on gift-wrap and other disguises to keep prying paparazzi from sensing something was up. Alas, no new Leaves were available for the test.)
In no time, I found that the system made the dull parts of driving — keeping up with stop-and-go traffic and centering the vehicle in the lane — that much easier.
The adaptive cruise control will take the vehicle all the way to a stop — and then restart with a push of the "Resume" button or the accelerator pedal.
The lane-centering feature helped me as I switched between my usual driving mode — a) "approximate" lane keeping when I have the road to myself, and b) Adrian Monk-level OCD tendencies when in traffic. All the system needs are lanes that are well marked and not too narrow.
The ProPilot Assist information comes through the dashboard in a clear fashion, with grayed-out graphics turning green and a chime sounding when the ProAssist is functioning, and an alarm sounding and the graphics going back to gray when it shuts off.
Take your hands off the wheel, and the system shuts down. Operate without enough pressure on the wheel, ditto. Faint or keel over dead from a heart attack, and the car sends notifications with increasing alarm and eventually brings the car to a gentle stop in the lane, hazard lights a-flashing. (That's according to Nissan. I stop short of inducing cardiac arrest to better serve you, the reader.)
The whole "partner"-with-a-vehicle thing sounds like brave-new droid world, but really, drivers have been partnering with their cars from the start. Why do we have steering wheels and not joysticks? Why are accelerator and brake foot-operated? It's the consensus of decades of early development (followed by some lawmaking along the way) that brought us here.