What happens if you remake that ultimate of mechanical devices, the automobile, for a digital world. The new concept vehicle, the Nissan EA2, provides a hint of what could come.
Sans doors, the show car made its debut today at Nissan 360, a global roundup of the Asian automaker’s products, which has bought journalists from around the world to Lisbon, Portugal.
Based on the 2008 Nissan Murano crossover vehicle, the EA2 uses X-by-Wire or, if you prefer, drive-by-wire, technology. These systems replaces conventional mechanical linkages for steering, braking, and other vehicle controls with copper wires and fiber optics. The transformation offers huge potential for automotive designers and engineers – improved packaging and customized user controls, for example – but also poses potential risks and challenges.
By eliminating the conventional steering column, for example, the wheel – or even a computer joystick-style system – can be positioned anywhere in the vehicle. With EA2, Nissan has adopted a racing-style steering wheel, which can be tuned to be more sensitive to driver input. And it can be moved out of the way to provide easier entry or exit from the concept vehicle.
(On an earlier concept vehicle, the 2008 Nissan Pivo2, the beetle-like passenger compartment was virtually disconnected from the prototype’s mechanical platform. So, to reverse directions, the cabin did a 180-degree turn.)
EA2 also features digital throttle, shift, and brake controls. The show car’s digital shifter is mounted into a center console that can be moved out of the way allowing an occupant to move between the driver and front-passenger seats.
Electronic accelerator pedals are becoming more commonplace today. Since there is no direct link to the engine, a driver’s mechanical input can be digitally tweaked to deliver the best performance, for example, or fuel economy.
Brake-by-wire systems have also been coming into more widespread use, although as Mercedes-Benz discovered on the last-generation E-Class, it can be difficult to deliver the same sort of refinement as time-tested mechanical brake linkages provide.
But combine all these various digital controls into one package – in this case, the Nissan EA2 concept vehicle – and you get tremendous packaging freedom. The cabin is about 4.5 inches longer than it would be with conventional controls. And using other design and engineering tricks, Nissan has been able to squeeze a third row of seats into the show car.
X-by-wire technology also means that the Nissan EA2 is lighter and more fuel efficient than a comparable Murano.