The leader of one of the world's largest automobile producers expects that cars will soon drive themselves and sync to the world around them - but don't count out the human behind the wheel just yet.
Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive and chairman of an alliance that includes Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi, said Thursday that humans will remain involved in the operation of vehicles for the foreseeable future, even as cars with self-driving technology enter the market in the next five years. You will push a button to activate the car's autonomous driving feature, he said, but it will encounter everyday scenarios it cannot compute and that require human assistance.
"Artificial intelligence is still way below the creativity of the human brain," Ghosn said.
Imagine a self-driving car coming upon a broken-down vehicle in the road, but there is a solid line to either side of it, Ghosn said. The car is wired to recognize both as impassable and doesn't have the judgment to cross over the line and pass the vehicle as long as the roadway is clear. A human will have to do the job.
That's just one common scenario in which artificial intelligence comes up short. General Motors recently acknowledged that its own vehicles are not sophisticated enough to respond when another motorist honks his horn.
Ghosn's perspective on the human's role in autonomous driving is not universally shared.
One of the major questions hanging over self-driving cars is how much they should depend on humans in the vehicle to intervene, if at all. Studies show that autonomous vehicles can lull passengers into a passive state, and stirring them to act when a problem arises takes time and may pose safety concerns.
Ford has seen engineers fall asleep in its self-driving cars during testing, Bloomberg reported last month. Both Ford and Waymo, Google's self-driving car company, intend to eliminate the role of the human driver entirely, according to Bloomberg, though other major automakers, including GM, Audi and Tesla, still plan to rely on human vigilance.
Self-driving technology is also expected to be an economic force - with both positive and negative consequences. The technology could lead to widespread unemployment among professional drivers, for example, whether they work behind the wheel for ride-hailing services like Uber or long-haul trucking companies.
Ghosn disagrees. He said Thursday the technology will enable companies to satisfy their constant shortage of drivers, while also freeing up existing drivers to do more substantive tasks while en route.
"Technology is not going to replace human beings; it's going to support you," Ghosn said. "It's more, 'I have a limitation, and I want to eliminate this limitation by bringing this technology in.' "
Nissan unveiled its vision for the future of cars almost exactly a year ago at the Geneva International Motor Show. Called Nissan Intelligent Mobility, the concept calls for cars that are autonomous, electric and connected to the world around them.
The company brought that vision closer to reality at the International CES technology show in January, when it debuted in-car artificial intelligence that admits when it doesn't know enough to make decisions. The car will then come to a stop and contact a human mobility manager in a command center for instructions.
"As the system learns from experience, and autonomous technology improves, vehicles will require less assistance and each mobility manager will be able to guide a large number of vehicles simultaneously," Nissan said in January.
Last year, Nissan began selling a minivan in Japan that comes equipped with ProPilot technology that allows the vehicle to drive itself on single-lane highways.
Ghosn will step down as Nissan's chief executive in April. He took the helm of Nissan in June 2001 and oversaw its ascent from a beleaguered automaker to part of a massive automotive alliance that includes Renault and Mitsubishi. He remains the chief executive of Renault and chairman of all three companies.
He will be replaced at Nissan by Hiroto Saikawa, the company's co-chief executive and former chief competitive officer.