I’m not what you’d call a “car guy.” When I drive, I want the most low-tech car possible. Hell, I only started using cruise control about 10 years ago. So when I got the chance to try the driver assistance technologies featured in the 2018 Nissan Rogue, I felt a little queasy. And yet, I was determined to give it a shot. For science.
On a beautiful winter morning, photographer Steven Polletta and I hopped into a plain old non-assisted rental (Steven drove) and traveled to Nissan’s Northeastern headquarters in Somerset, New Jersey. There we met Don Smith, Nissan’s General Manager of Field Strategy, and Jennifer Telzer, Nissan’s Regional Marketing Program Manager. They gave us a presentation about Nissan Intelligent Mobility, the overarching name for all the driver assistance technology features in Nissan’s new cars.
We learned how the Rogue can maintain a following distance designated by the driver — not too scary. We also learned how the car can sense that you might be asleep, and, if its warning mechanisms fail to rouse you, the car will coast to a stop. That might have been helpful when I was driving bleary-eyed after a flight to Iceland five years ago.
In most highway scenarios, if the lanes are clearly marked, the car can follow the curves of the road with minimal driver input. All of these features work in conjunction with each other to make up the Nissan Rogue’s ProPILOT Assist*. I had some questions.
“So, wait. Okay. You’re saying if I’m going from point A to point B, and I turn on ProPILOT Assist, and the road has curves and goes up and down, I can just get in the car and it will take me there, steering itself the whole way?”
The eternally patient Don Smith explained that, with mild to moderate curves and clearly marked lanes, the car would assist with steering, but, “your hands still have to be on the wheel, and the car has to be able to see the lane markings.” But it was made clear that the driver still needs to remain alert at all times.
“Does the wheel turn itself, or…?”
This isn’t to say that Nissan’s ProPILOT Assist takes all the responsibility off the driver’s shoulders. You need to stay alert, keep hands on the wheel, and obey and respect all traffic laws as you normally would. Still, this was going to take some emotional adjustment.
But we didn’t have time for that. We were already in the parking lot, ogling a sleek 2018 Nissan Rogue in Monarch Orange. It’s hard to resist the almost sensual appeal of a new car, and orange is my favorite color — did ProPILOT Assist know that? Soon, we were cradled in buttery upholstery, with Don behind the wheel, demonstrating the features we’d talked about. And finally, it was my turn to take the helm.
I drove us into the very public and very other-car-filled roads of New Jersey. Some parts of ProPILOT Assist were easy to wrap my head around. I set a speed and the car held it, slowing down to match the pace of the car we were following.
Then, after checking to make sure no one was behind us and we were in a safe place to test the feature, I took my hands off the wheel. Over the course of about 30 seconds, the car beeped subtly, then aggressively, then rumbled rhythmically as if we were driving over grooved pavement, and finally coasted to a stop. So far, so good.
Now it was time to watch the ProPilot Assist really do its thing. The Rogue chirped a friendly tone to let me know that it saw where the lane markings were, and the dashboard display indicated that the car was ready to help me steer. I needed a little more assurance.
“It’s on now, right?” I asked Don.
“So I don’t have to steer. You’re telling me the car will steer itself.” If there was some extra urgency in my voice, it’s because a curve to the left was coming up, with a steep drop to the right.
“Yes. Your hands have to stay on the wheel, but the car will make the turn.”
And, sure enough, it did. Guided by algorithms, the wheel turned itself beneath my hands, as if a gentle ghost were in control. Some choice words escaped my lips.
It’s funny how quickly humans can adapt to things. Five minutes later, we were on the freeway, and, while I may not have been zipping in and out of traffic like some kind of Star Wars X-Wing pilot, I was beginning to imagine life with ProPILOT Assist. I would be able to go on a long road trip, fire up my favorite podcast, and soak in all the ways the car can help assist on some of the driving details. Why shouldn’t we let a computer help handle the constant tiny adjustments required to stay on the road? I was coming around to the idea that those details are drudgery, and having assistance from a gentle ghost would help ease my mind and might even make driving less fatiguing — and therefore safer.
Life returned to normal when we drove back to the rental car and its human driver, Steven, who may not be a better driver than a robot, but has a face and can carry a conversation. Still, I had mixed feelings about saying goodbye to my Monarch Orange friend. Driving the Nissan Rogue with ProPILOT Assist felt like a glimpse into the future. It’s a half-step into a world where, someday, cars might just fully drive themselves. I’d gone from skeptical to optimistic in about half an hour. I can’t help but wonder how I might feel if I had a month to get used to it. Maybe someday, I’ll get that opportunity.
*ProPILOT Assist: It is the driver’s responsibility to remain alert with hands on the steering wheel, keeping a look out for other vehicles and pedestrians at all times.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gizmodo.