Steer clear of accidents, global warming

Nissan says its car navigation system can help cut greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient driving.

CHIBA, Japan--The next tool in fighting global warming--and traffic accidents--is the car navigation system, according to Nissan.

The Japanese automaker has launched a major effort to better exploit navigation systems--which are essentially on-board computers--and contemporary communications infrastructures to improve the safety of their cars and boost gas mileage, company executives said this week at Ceatec, the large Japanese trade show taking place outside of Tokyo.

On one level, it's a public relations effort by the company to present itself as a green automaker. But Nissan also thinks the features can help differentiate its cars in the marketplace. Cars coming from other manufacturers will likely start getting some of these features too, but it doesn't hurt being early. The company's goal is to reduce traffic accidents with its cars to nearly zero by 2030 and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent by 2050.

One application, currently being tested on taxis in Beijing, feeds current traffic data gathered by sensors in other cars on the road to drivers to help them avoid traffic jams.

In early tests, Nissan says the application cuts carbon dioxide emissions by about kilogram a day. That's because driving at a steady pace, rather than in stop-and-go traffic, improves mileage.

"How people will use cars in the social infrastructure is a key factor for the future," said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, executive vice president of Nissan, during a presentation at the show. "By alleviating congestion, we can improve carbon dioxide pollution."

But the early data also indicates that the drivers using the applications were on the road 20 percent less than the average cab traveling between similar points.

"You are getting to your destination faster," said Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president and general manager of the Technology Development Division at Nissan during a separate interview.

Eco Driving Advice, which has just debuted on some cars in Japan and will begin to be available globally next year, is the application that will hit the market first. It's similar to the mileage panel on Toyota Prius automobiles. Eco Driving Advice collects information on your car's performance (how many miles per gallon you are getting at the moment you're looking at the screen, for instance) and how you drive (do you accelerate and decelerate a lot?). The data can then be uploaded to your PC, where you can compare yourself against other drivers or compare it to your previous driving history.

The system will also provide tips on ways to drive to improve mileage.

In early tests, drivers gravitated to it immediately and it improved mileage by around 18 percent. However, they also quickly lost interest. To keep people using it, Nissan is contemplating a frequent flyer-like rewards system.

The company is also testing a collision avoidance system with 2,000 drivers in Japan that relies on the navigation system. In this, roadside optical sensors gather data on the current locations of cars. The system then pings a driver about oncoming cars or cars at intersections coming up.

"The car can be completely invisible," said Shinohara.

The accident and traffic avoidance systems, however, will take time. The accident system will require installing optical sensors in many locations. In some cities, some of the infrastructure exists, asserted Nissan, but it's not common.

The traffic avoidance system lets the cars exchange data over the cellular network. However, you need a number of cars on the road equipped with sensors to provide the data and those don't exist just yet. Ultimately, other car manufacturers will have to participate in this sort of sensor system as well.

"If it is unique to Nissan, it cannot be deployed across the nation," Yamashita said.

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