Over the weekend, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a spin around parts of Tokyo. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be too newsworthy, but this was no ordinary spin: the prime minister was riding shotgun in an autonomous car.
In fact, he rode in several autonomous cars -- vehicles built by Honda, Nissan, and Toyota -- while security details jogged nearby. It was all part of an elaborate publicity stunt meant to draw attention to the three automakers' high-tech vehicles.
Japanese car companies have been working overtime to develop autonomous technology, and each has a slightly different agenda. Nissan, for example, has adopted a series of goals called Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate most traffic fatalities and injuries -- at least in Nissan vehicles -- by the year 2025.
Given that objective, it's not surprising that Nissan has focused a great deal of attention on autonomous technology. Self-driving vehicles, together with vehicle-to-vehicle communication, are expected to end the vast majority of roadway accidents by creating cars that "talk" to one another and to the surrounding environment.
Nor is it surprising that Nissan's autonomous vehicle program has chosen to put its proverbial eggs in the basket of the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is one of the world's first mass-market electric cars, and its complement of high-tech features is impressive. When choosing a car to represent Nissan's future, the Leaf was an obvious choice.
Nissan expects to bring autonomous vehicles like the autonomous Leaf to showrooms by the year 2020. Toyota plans to beat its rival to the punch -- at least partially -- by offering vehicles with substantially autonomous features by the mid-2010s.
MEANWHILE, IN AMERICA
All of this raises an important question: when will president Obama and other high-ranking officials have the opportunity to tout autonomous electric cars from U.S. automakers?
The short answer is: no one knows.
The longer answer is: it depends on how fast Detroit (and/or Tesla) can unveil a fully electric autonomous prototype.
U.S. automakers haven't been quite as aggressive as their Japanese counterparts when it comes to developing autonomous technology -- or, more accurately, they haven't been quite as aggressive at publicizing it.
Ford, for example, has debuted some impressive autonomous safety systems. And General Motors' Super Cruise could offer near-autonomy in the coming years. (Obama's once-preferred automaker, Chrysler, has been much quieter.) But none of the Big Three have been as proactive on the autonomous front as Nissan -- or Audi, or Google, for that matter.
The good news for autonomous car fans is that three major U.S. auto shows are looming on the horizon, beginning with this month's Los Angeles show. Perhaps we'll see some new tricks from Detroit at these events.
In the meantime, check out the video from Nissan above to see an overview of prime minister Abe's ride in the autonomous Nissan Leaf.