Nissan Uses Robot Team to Make More Nimble Cars

Nissan has built a team of small robots that can quickly navigate around obstacles using technology the company hopes to one day use in vehicles.

Modeled after the way a school of fish travels, the six robots follow each other, coordinate their speeds and even shift lanes to avoid obstacles. While the robots -- called EPORO -- are less than a meter high, the idea is to put similar navigation technology into full-size automobiles to reduce traffic accidents and road congestion.

"In these robots we put laser range finders to see the outside and also telecommunication [technology]," said Kazuhiro Doi, general manager of the Technology Communication Department at Nissan, during a demonstration on Tuesday.

On display at Ceatec, Japan's largest gadget and IT trade show, Nissan had a small track around which the robots traveled. At points the track was wide and at others it was narrow to show how robots could go from traveling in two or three lanes to just one. During the demonstration a broken robot was placed in the wide section of the track to simulate a broken-down car. The six Eporo were able to navigate around it.

EPORO is an abbreviation of EPisode 0, which means Nissan is aiming to be CO2-free and accident-free.

The robots have three main tasks when traveling along the makeshift roadway. The first is to avoid collisions, both among themselves and with obstacles on the road. The next is to travel side by side at a coordinated speed while maintaining a safe distance. The third task is to close gaps between the robots in the group.

"In the future we want to use this for vehicle to vehicle communication, but I do have to say that it takes time," Doi said. He said that it could take up to 30 years before the full-scale technology is in use.

Doi said that this is the first phase of research for the technology and that to be successful, every vehicle has to have the communications systems.

He said that the company is working with a safety consortium in Japan to include the technology in cars not made by Nissan. He said they would like to do something similar internationally, but didn't say when any collaboration will start.

Nissan has developed other car safety technology including "navigation-cooperative intelligent pedal," which monitors a car's location via GPS and keeps an eye out for upcoming curves and bends in the road. If a driver approaches a curve too fast, the car will trigger a warning for the driver. If ignored, it will slow down the car to what is considered a safe speed for the turn.

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