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New Car Review: Nissan's Autonomous Driving Car +VIDEO

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by Marty Bernstein, Senior Editor at Large
The Auto Channel

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El Toro, CA September 10, 2013; We've all been semi-dazzled with emerging automotive technology that will warn us when tire pressure is low, when there's a car passing ours so stay in this lane, a noise or vibrating steering wheel telling us to slow down, the car in front of ours is too close, we use BlueTooth connectivity for smart phones, music and other infotainment devices, programs and features as well as a cornucopia of other gizmos, gadgets and gewgaws. But most, if not all, require the drivers attention and some sort of human action and intervention.

No mas. I just rode in a vehicle that drives itself. And it is simply amazing. During the test drives At the decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station airfield Nissan's tech people gave me, along with over 900 different auto writers during their quadrennial worldwide event a real-life-demonstration of the cars capabilities.

First there was a walk-about around the specially equipped Nissan Leaf as one of the engineers detailed the technical components: there are four sensors, one each at the corners of the car, unique roundabout radar scanning devices for wide viewing perspective, a forward focused hi-def camera and other tech details, all built seamlessly and unobtrusively into the car. All the data and information gathered is fed, okay - transmitted, to the onboard computer where special software and algorithms interface and control the vehicles operating systems. Result? This is what made it possible for the vehicle to drive itself.

There was a driver behind the wheel but after starting and pushing a button the vehicle drove itself. And thus began a unique futuristic driving experience that was a little bit eery watching the steering wheel turn this way and that as little blue LEDs illuminated sections of the turning. As I sat in the passenger seat one of Nissan's Autonomous Driving Car engineers explained the special demonstrations of the hands off capabilities of the new technology.

First was a trip in a simulated crowded shopping center parking lot. A situation most have experienced of driving slowly up and down lanes to locate a vacant parking space. But this time the car did it itself. Amazingly the technology located a space then measured it for size and access automatically. It then moved up from the space and slowly backed (yes, backed up) effortlessly and smoothly into the space. Score a big win for the NADC.

Now for a more difficult demo -- driving at speed limits in congested city streets.

One of El Toro's landing strips was set-up like a combination city street and expressway with straights, twists and turns, speed limit and lane change signs, stop lights and the ubiquitous orange barrels of road repairs. The software currently reads and understands English but new software, I was told, is in development for many languages.

Entering the highway at the posted 35 mph limit the car moved up to the 65 mph with a new sign, the sensing a row of barrels closing a lane ahead, it moved to the open lane then automatically stopped at a stop sign. It then moved on at a higher speed to demonstrate instant reaction to a normal situation as if a pedestrian unexpectedly darted in front of the car. The Autonomous Driving Car swerved and stopped in a nano second. No driver intervention. It was automatic and autonomous.

And a realistic, practical demonstration of the still developing sophistication of riding in a vehicle that is drives itself. I just experienced a technological breakthrough -- automotive history in the making if you will -- that will certainly change driving as we now know it.

When will it be more than a very good demonstration? Nissan says by the year 2020 it will be ready for the highways of the world.