Last week, Giz UK went to Tokyo for the launch of the brand new Nissan Leaf. It's an interesting time for electric vehicles, with Tesla heating up the market and all the big manufacturers eyeing a piece of the pie.
The Leaf is currently the biggest selling all-electric car in the world, and the new version offers a boosted battery (40KWH), longer range (235 miles according to the NEDC - but only 150 per EPA), and some interesting innovations including automated parking and a V2G system to give energy back to the grid.
We got some close-up time in the new Leaf to experience its new one-finger parking tech, ProPilot Park. Here's what we found out.
1. It's like having your car parked by a ghost
ProPilot Park is a bit scary as a proposition. You sit in the driver's seat and push a button, and the car figures out where it's supposed to go and goes there. If you've read about automated disasters like the tragic Tesla death caused by the car mistaking a white lorry for bright sky, you might be understandably nervous about entrusting your Leaf and your life to a single button.
However, unlike on the Tesla Model S, ProPilot Park isn't a hands-free kind of deal: you have to hold the button down the entire time. If you panic and take your finger off, the car stops immediately. And if someone walks in front of or behind the car, it stops too -- even if you're still holding the button down. You sadist.
It's quite bizarre watching the car do its thing:
But we guess we'll get used to haunted tech as automated cars -- including Nissan's own effort, trialled earlier this year -- grow in strength and popularity.
2. It doesn't like shiny things
The ProPilot Park demos were staged in a conference hall with pretend parking bays marked out on a very reflective floor, and blinding blue lights beating down. This environment confused the Leaf's camera. It was still able to park accurately in some scenarios, but couldn't complete the parallel parking task the first time round.
The Leaf uniquely uses a combination of radar and camera inputs to navigate, which explains why it wasn't completely scuppered, but we were still concerned. Real-world road conditions are far from perfect and might include such obstacles as super-shiny wet roads -- we're from the UK, after all.
So after our second demo, where the inputs had been tweaked and the demo worked flawlessly, we sat down with Gareth Dunsmore, Electric Vehicle Director for Nissan Europe, and Nicholas Thomas, Global EV Director, to discuss our observations. They told us new Leaf owners are unlikely to encounter these sorts of problems in the wild.
"It's a very artificial environment here with all the bright lights, it's causing us a couple of minor issues with the camera," says Nicholas. "I've tested it a great deal in the real world and I can assure you it works very well."
What about multi-storey car parks? They have shiny floors, would we have problems there too?
"If you have enormous spotlights on a very shiny floor in a multi-storey car park, yes, but usually you don't."
True. Our local one is dangerously dark if anything.
"We've tested this outside, in underground car parks, it's being tested in different places in Europe and tuned. The local technical centre in Cranfield, they'll take the car now to Europe, and work on that before the launch in January," Gareth assures us.
Presumably, Nissan will take note of the issues at the launch and feed that info into the final product. But it's fair to say you're unlikely to find lighting like this in the real world:
3. It parks better than radar-only systems
The combo of radar and camera is important for a flawless auto-park experience, apparently.
"If you've got two spaces side by side and you've got a radar based system, it will park right in the middle of them, across the middle line," says Nicholas. "Or if you're parallel parking and there are three or four spaces, it'll park exactly in the middle."
While that sounds kind of adorable in a robot-logic sort of way, it's not very helpful. So the Leaf system is designed to be better:
"[ProPilot Park] combines both the radar and the camera to spot the white lines. So the radar is always working to guide the vehicle, but then the camera's spotting the lines and parking you exactly in the middle."
The magic button
4. ...But doesn't require marked parking bays
That's all cool, but it's pretty rare to find pristine white lines out in the real world. Round our neck of the woods, you're lucky if the spaces are marked at all, and the ones that are can be a fuzzy palimpsest of old markings, worn-out paint and graffiti.
"Because it's got both the radar and the camera, it can adapt to whatever scenario there is," Nicholas assured us. We found it also came in handy having the Around View Monitor on during auto-parking -- an overview of the environment around the car taken from four live camera feeds. You can see exactly where you're going and correct if necessary. It's all about the cameras, this car.
5. It's gonna cost you - but you might get some back
Predictably, given that we haven't even had a UK price for the new Nissan Leaf yet, the reps weren't keen to answer our questions about pricing for ProPilot Park. However, we do know that it's an add-on rather than coming standard with the Leaf, and that ProPilot and Park can be bought individually.
We did get confirmed figures for one thing: the amount of money you can expect to make from your Leaf if you use it for Vehicle-2-Grid (V2G). That's the system that lets the hooked-up car send power to the grid, and money to your wallet.
A commercially-viable pilot scheme in Denmark has Leaf drivers making 100-160 Euros a month from their cars, minus fees from the power scheme they're part of. Taking the lower figure and assuming a 20% cut, that's about £70 a month at a rough conservative estimate. If you have a time-based power tariff like Economy 7, you could theoretically charge the car at off-peak times for less, and sell the power back at higher prices. And if you pulled that off successfully, V2G could conceivably even cover your monthly car payments.
Yes, we're most likely in fantasy-land -- but what's car tech for if not to give us electric dreams?