Innovation

NASA tech allows humans to remote control Nissan's autonomous cars

At CES 2017, Nissan announced Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM), a system developed from NASA technology that pairs AI with human support to get autonomous cars on the road faster.

Image: Nissan

Nissan has a new tool to get safe autonomous cars on the road quickly: Humans.

While advances in AI are making vehicles smarter, we are not yet at the point where autonomous vehicles can completely understand how to handle unpredictable driving situations, Nissan said in a press release. To more quickly realize the potential of autonomous driving, Nissan CEO and chairman of the board Carlos Ghosn announced a new technology called Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM), in a keynote address at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show last week.

SAM pairs in-vehicle artificial intelligence (AI) with support from a human call center, allowing human operators to remotely control an autonomous car when the vehicle finds itself in an unfamiliar or dangerous driving situation, such as a construction zone or an accident.

SAM was born from Nissan's partnership with NASA on autonomous car research and development. It uses a version of NASA's Visual Environment for Remote Virtual Exploration (VERVE) software, which was used to navigate the rovers on Mars.

SEE: CES 2017 Special Coverage (CNET) | CES 2017 (TechRepublic) | CES 2017: The Big Trends for Business (ZDNet)

For example, the press release stated, imagine an autonomous car is driving through city streets, and comes across an accident, with police using hand signals to direct traffic across double yellow lines and against traffic lights. While the vehicle sensors can tell where the obstacles are, human judgement is still needed to understand the situation and determine the best course of action. That's where the call center comes in. Using SAM, the car will be smart enough to bring itself to a safe stop and ping the command center.

"The request is routed to the first available mobility manager—a person who uses vehicle images and sensor data (streamed over the wireless network) to assess the situation, decide on the correct action, and create a safe path around the obstruction," the press release stated. "The mobility manager does this by 'painting' a virtual lane for the vehicle to drive itself through."

Once the car is out of the accident area and back on its route, it resumes fully autonomous operations.

Nissan's AI also learns from the experience: Other Nissans in the area can communicate with SAM, and as the system learns the proper path, it shares that information with those other vehicles.

"Our goal is to change the transportation infrastructure," said Maarten Sierhuis, former NASA scientist and director of the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley, in the press release. "We want to reduce fatalities and ease congestion. We need a huge number of vehicles out there. What we are doing at Nissan is finding a way so that we can have this future transportation system not in 20 years or more, but now."

SAM's goal is to "use the human intelligence more strategically to support a larger system of autonomous mobility—and to help improve the artificial intelligence of the vehicles in real-time." Not to mention, it quashes at least some fears of humans losing their jobs to robots.

SEE: NASA's unsung heroes: The Apollo coders who put men on the moon (PDF download)

The announcements are part of the Nissan Intelligent Mobility blueprint, aimed at "transforming how cars are driven, powered, and integrated into wider society," according to the press release.

"We invite others to join us, as well, from tech partners to e-commerce companies, ride-hailing and car-sharing platforms, and social entrepreneurs who can help us to test and develop new vehicles and services, and make sure everyone has access to the latest technologies and services that bring value to their lives," said Ghosn in the press release.

At CES, Ghosn also announced that Nissan and Japanese internet company DeNA will begin testing autonomous cars for commercial services this year in Japan. He also unveiled plans to launch a new Nissan LEAF with ProPILOT technology to enable autonomous driving functionality for single-lane highway driving. The manufacturer will also continue its partnership with Microsoft on connected cars with Cortana services.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. At CES 2017, Nissan CEO and chairman of the board Carlos Ghosn announced a new technology called Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM), created with NASA software that pairs autonomous vehicle AI with a human call center to get self-driving cars on the road faster.
  2. When an autonomous car comes across an unfamiliar situation, such as a construction zone or an accident, the car will ping the call center to receive instruction from a human operator, which the AI will learn from.
  3. Nissan also announced new commercial autonomous car testing with Japanese company DeNA, as well as a continued connected car partnership with Microsoft.

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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