Nissan ProPILOT Assist — A taste of self-driving features

By Jim Prueter

(April 23, 2018) Last fall, I had the opportunity to drive Nissan’s first go at semi-autonomous driving with the launch of the all-new 2018 Leaf and introduction of ProPILOT Assist. This new technology beat the Leaf to dealer showrooms with the 2018 Nissan Rogue SL, the model tested here and, the only other Nissan model offered with the technology. The benefit and intent of ProPILOT Assist is to ease the driver’s workload by reducing the amount of acceleration, steering and braking effort, thus mitigating driver fatigue.

ProPilot Assist is a single-lane driving technology that automatically provides steering assistance to help keep the vehicle centered in your lane. It also automatically maintains a set distance from the vehicle in front, using the speed and distance preset by the driver.

Further, it can automatically apply the brakes to help bring the vehicle to a full stop, if necessary, and remain in place even if the driver’s foot is off the brake. If traffic restarts, the car will resume driving when the driver touches the blue activation button on the steering wheel or lightly presses the accelerator.

Nissan strongly emphasizes that ProPILOT Assist is not a “self-driving” feature and does not have the capability to drive safely when the driver’s hands are off the wheel. Additionally, the technology won’t change lanes, nor will it exit the highway and guide you to your destination.

How ProPILOT Works

The system works by combining two vehicle technology functions: lane centering assist and adaptive cruise control. While traditional lane departure warning technology alerts the driver when the vehicle wanders from its driving lane, crossing the painted line on the roadway, Nissan’s lane centering assist actually steers the vehicle to keep it centered exactly your the lane. It won’t ping-pong your car between the painted lane edges. This is known as Level 2 autonomy, where two or more vehicle technologies work together to take over part of the driving.

System hardware consists of forward-looking and sensing radar, and numerous ultrasonic sensors synched to a single-lens camera. Other systems — Cadillac Super Cruise for example — use more sophisticated lidar road contours data, allowing for hands-off driving (with the driver still actively watching the road). Nissan’s ProPILOT is not at that level of autonomous driving.

How to Activate the System

To activate the system, the driver simply pushes the blue ProPILOT Assist ON button, which is located into the right side of the vehicle’s steering wheel. Next, once you’ve hit your desired driving speed, hit the “set” button on your normal cruise control system. You can set the desired distance between your vehicle and the one in front of you using the button indicating a vehicle with three lines below it, located in the same steering wheel cluster.

Finally, a clear interface on the driver information screen goes green and chimes to indicate the system is engaged. That’s it. If you approach a vehicle in front of you that is driving more slowly than you are, ProPILOT will automatically and gently decrease your vehicle’s speed and keep you at your preselected safe distance. If you switch lanes, the system will automatically accelerate back to your originally set speed.

What’s It’s Like to Drive

As previously mentioned, this is not a self-driving car that will allow you to sit back with your eyes off the road, nor does it have the capability to drive safely with the driver’s hands off the wheel. You must keep one hand (or even a finger) resting on the wheel.

If the vehicle senses that you’ve taken your hand off the wheel (and believe me, with the torque sensor, you cannot fool the system), after about twenty-seconds you will be alerted to put your hands back on the steering wheel via a red icon on the instrument cluster. Next, you’ll hear an insistent and increasingly audible beeping. Ignore those warnings and the vehicle will tap the brakes to alert you (hopefully, not wake you). If you still don’t respond, such as in an emergency health event, the Rogue will automatically turn on the hazard flashers, begin to slow, and eventually come to a complete stop.

The system will also warn you to clean the front radar sensor if it’s blocked by dirt, snow or road debris. In stormy weather, the system will not activate unless wipers are set on intermittent.

In my real world driving, ProPILOT Assist system was quite impressive. It tracks the painted lines on the road surface — even on curves — and does an amazing job of keeping the vehicle centered in the driving lane. But we found the system didn’t work when the vehicle chose to follow the right side lane markings in on- and off-ramps with long gaps. The system also was confused when the center lane split and could go either way.

Also, know that the roads have to be clear, not snow covered, and must have painted markings. If they are, the system will find the lane – day or night. And yes, there are times when you will need to override the system and steer the vehicle yourself to stay on the road.

Is ProPILOT Assist For You?

First, you must be fully aware that ProPILOT Assist is not a “self-driving” feature. But that doesn’t make it a bad thing. Secondly, you better not be overly annoyed by all the beeping of the system: veer a bit too close to a lane marking — left or right, the vehicle will let you know. Further, it beeps once to tell you the system has identified the lane markings, twice to say it’s lost them. Change lanes on the highway or lose the lane because of an exit or entrance ramp? Yep, you get the beeps. If beeps annoy you then don’t buy the technology.

Yes, I was impressed with the system capability. However, there is an element of trust that I was never fully able to embrace. Those times when I was driving on a multi-lane highway or Interstate in the middle lane, with the system engaged, and a slower moving semi-tractor trailer truck on my right, on a curve. I always took over the driving for fear that my vehicle wouldn’t read the lane marking or the lane marking would disappear and I would drift into the truck. This is not a “set-it-and-forget-it” system. To be fair, Nissan makes that point explicitly clear; the driver must remain fully engaged and ready to take full control of the vehicle at all times.

Final Notes and Thoughts

Like it or not, we are all rapidly moving toward a future of self-driving (autonomous) vehicles. Some manufacturers already have systems available that are more advanced than Nissan’s ProPILOT Assist, but those vehicles usually cost tens of thousands of dollars more.

For Nissan, this technology is the first of three steps in their Intelligent Mobility strategy to bring autonomous city driving to the masses by the year 2020. In fact, Nissan has already announced that it will roll out a feature that enables automated driving across multiple lanes, possibly later this year. On the horizon for the Leaf is a ProPILOT Park system that allows you to choose a spot, hold down a button, and let the vehicle park itself.

For now, if you want ProPILOT Assist, you’ll have to buy the 2018 Leaf in either the SV or SL trim levels, and pay extra for the technology, bringing the MSRP to the mid-thirties (less a $7,500 federal tax credit). Or, opt for the range-topping 2018 Rogue SL we tested and add the Premium and the SL Platinum Packages for a total MSRP of $36,520.