TOMORROWLAND: GLIMPSING THE FUTURE IN TOKYO

When the new Leaf launches in 2018, it will be available with technology that will enable it to operate autonomously within lanes on a freeway, but also automatically change lanes and avoid crashes. By 2020 Nissan claims autonomous Leafs will be able to operate on ordinary roads, dealing with intersections, pedestrians, and other vehicles without any input from the driver. While capable of operating autonomously—Nissan calls it “piloted drive mode”—the cars will still be able to be driven with full manual control.

So it’s not quite Google Car. There will still be a steering wheel. But we’re looking at a mainstream automaker offering an affordably priced vehicle with extensive autonomous driving capability within five years. The future has arrived. And with it, questions even the experts concede they don’t have the answers for.

The car today is the machine that changed the world. From superhighways to suburbs, fast food joints to big box stores, it’s transformed our cities and our lives. Self-driving vehicles are about to change the world again. Truck and taxi drivers will go the way of grooms and farriers. Will Uber have a reason to exist 10, 15, 20 years from now? Will Porsche? Not all the disruption will be for the worse: Nissan researchers claim 93 percent of all crashes are the result of driver error, so autonomous vehicles should bring the global road toll down from its current level of about 1.25 million deaths a year. Cops can go back to catching bad guys, firemen back to fighting fires, and medics back to healing the sick.

I went to Japan for the first time in 1985, to visit the 26th Tokyo Motor Show, and after hours jostling through the jammed halls of the International Trade Fairgrounds at Harumi, Tokyo, I came away convinced I’d seen the future of the automobile. Multicam, multivalve engines; four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering; moving maps on mini screens that showed drivers where they were going: technologies you’ll find on Hondas and Hyundais today, but “Star Wars” stuff back when the Chevy Celebrity was riding high on the American new-car sales charts.

Thirty years later I’m writing this in a hotel room overlooking a glittering, endlessly sprawling high-rise cityscape that at night, 37 floors up, looks like a scene from “Blade Runner.” I’ve just come back from a day at the 44th Tokyo Motor Show, and once again I’m convinced I’ve seen the future of the automobile. This time, though, it’s a little scary.

The mid-engine, four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steering MID 4 supercar concept was one of the star concepts on the Nissan stand at the 1985 Tokyo show. This year, Nissan’s star car was the IDS, a compact four-door electric vehicle that previews the styling of the next-generation Leaf EV. Under the skin is the new Leaf EV platform, featuring a new 60-kW-hr battery pack that will give the car a driving range well in excess of 200 miles between charges. But that’s not what made the IDS one of the most important concept cars of the show. It was this: The next-gen Leaf will offer fully autonomous driving capability at an affordable price.