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Crash course: Salesman arrested after collision involving Japan’s first self-driving car

Chiba police arrested a car salesman after a crash involving a Nissan Serena self-driving car
Chiba police arrested a car salesman after a crash involving a Nissan Serena self-driving car

CHIBA (TR) – In October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proclaimed at science conference that he expects self-driving cars to be in operation in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The endeavor is not off to a good start. On Friday, Chiba Prefectural Police referred a 28-year-old male salesman for Nissan Motor Co. and his manager, 46, to prosecutors over a collision caused by a customer instructed to not use the brakes of a Serena minivan, a vehicle touted as Japan’s first self-driving car, during a test drive last year, reports Chiba Nippo (Apr. 14).

According to the indictment filed with the Chiba District Public Prosecutor’s Office, the customer, a 38-year-old male, who was also arrested, crashed the Serena into another vehicle at an intersection after the salesman told him not to use the brakes to test the autonomous driving system on November 27. The incident took place during rainy conditions and at night, both of which are prohibited by Nissan in the utilization of the system.

The salesman and his manager, based at a dealership in Yachiyo City, have been accused of bodily injury through negligent conduct. The customer was charged with violating the law against dangerous driving.

All three suspects have admitted to the charges, police said, in what is Japan’s first incident involving a vehicle equipped with autonomous driving functions on a public road.

Nissan became the first domestic manufacturer with a self-driving vehicle in its lineup with the release of the latest version of the Serena in August. The minivan utilizes the ProPilot antonymous driving system. Described last year by a Nissan representative as a “driver assistance technology,” it provides the automatic use of steering, acceleration and braking under certain conditions on a highway.

“Fight the urge”

At 4:50 p.m. on the day of the accident, the salesman joined the male customer in the front of the Serena, court documents showed. At some point thereafter, the cruise control function was activated.

“The car automatically stops when it detects a stopped vehicle ahead when the [cruise control function] is set at 40 kilometers per hour,” the salesman told the customer. On a stretch of road near the dealer, the salesman said the stretch they were traveling on would be an an example for when one would normally apply the brakes. “But please fight the urge to do so,” he said.

The vehicle then proceeded to plow into the other car that was waiting at a traffic light. A man and his wife, both aged in their 30s, were inside the other vehicle. They both sustained injuries that required two weeks to heal.

The salesman admitted to telling the customer to not use the brakes. “I mistakenly thought the car would stop since the car did so numerous times in the past during test drives when the cruise control function of the autonomous driving system was activated,” he said.

Rainy conditions at night

Serena models are equipped with Forward Emergency Braking technology, which is capable of detecting “potential forward obstacles and assists drivers in avoiding collisions,” according to a Nissan press release.

In the accident, the automatic brakes would normally have kicked in based on the minivan’s camera under proper conditions. “[But] the automatic brakes didn’t function because of the combination of the weather and road conditions, including the headlights of the oncoming vehicles, all of which resulted in the crash,” traffic police concluded.

In the manual for the Serena, Nissan forbids the use of the cruise control function during rain and at night, whether for test-driving or regular road use, according to traffic police.

“There’s a limit to autonomous driving, which is ultimately that it is a support system,” traffic police said. “Drivers should have a sound understanding of the functions. We decided to prosecute the incident as a criminal case to raise awareness.”