Toward Truly Autonomous Driving

Dr. Yasuhito Sano


(Based on an interview carried out in January 2013.)

After earning his doctorate in computational intelligence and systems science from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Yasuhito Sano joined the Nissan Research Center, where he worked on recognition and control device development for vehicle safety systems. Sano worked with the Kanzaki-Takahashi Laboratory at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology to develop the BR23C, a collision-avoiding robotic car. While he was a visiting researcher (STA) at the Mobile Robotics Group at the University of Oxford, he developed technologies for recognizing the surrounding environment as part of efforts to achieve autonomous driving. Since returning to Japan, he has built on his joint research with the Oxford group in crafting autonomous driving systems.

* STA (Short Term Assignment): STAs are a overseas assignment program in another country with a specific task or mission to support projects.

Making His Way to Oxford

Yasuhito Sano was sent to the University of Oxford on the Nissan Research Center's Short-Term Assignment (STA) program. At this U.K. school, where the world's elite researchers gather, he did research on making the vehicle more autonomous.
“Ordinarily,” says Sano, “people are recommended by their superiors and selected for an STA, after which they learn their destinations. But I made my own appointment to speak with the research group that I was interested in joining. In the end, this led to my making use of the STA system. This was the best possible way for me to achieve a breakthrough in the research I was doing at that time.”

The Automation Potential of Environment Recognition

Before heading to England, Sano was focusing his research efforts on systems to propel robotic cars while helping them avoid obstacles. He realized, though, that a certain type of environment-recognition technology could open up fresh possibilities in autonomous driving. And it was the Oxford Mobile Robotics Group that was on the leading edge of research in this field.

What the Years Abroad Produced

Sano was inspired to go to England by the potential he saw in the environment-recognition technology being worked on at Oxford. This would make entirely new forms of autonomous driving possible: a car that would drive as it always did when traveling on routine routes, but that would “think” more about its operations when presented with different conditions than usual.
In February 2013, Sano's two and a half years of research at Oxford were capped with an autonomous driving experiment carried out in England. “We're still only part of the way toward our goal of autonomous driving, but I think this should serve as a touchstone along the way,” notes the engineer.

Seeking Nissan-Oxford Synergies

“We've got to produce results,” Sano states. “That's the core mission of any researcher affiliated with a company.” But it is not just companies that want to see results: Oxford, too, saw tremendous value in the progress that Sano made in his research on environment-recognition technology.
“In 2012 I received a certificate of thanks from the university,” he notes. “The school was very appreciative of the knowhow and technical skills that Nissan offered in support of our work. I hope to continue pursuing this research in cooperation with Oxford, even from Japan.”

The Keys to Research Success

“One thing I learned from my STA was the importance of being able to believe in something. If you can't believe in the hidden potential of your research, you won't ever see results from it.” To acquire this ability to believe, says Sano, it is vital to rely not just on your own talents but also on cooperation from your companions—and even a little luck.
“Autonomous driving isn't something we can create by evolving the automobile on its own. Once we get the needed transportation infrastructure in place, we’ll be able to achieve even more amazing autonomous mobility. I believe strongly that this new automobile society is on the way.”

A Note to Prospective Researchers

Sano's vision of the future is simple: As more advanced forms of autonomous mobility become possible, traveling by car will be more comfortable and enjoyable. It will take plenty of time and effort to reach this goal, of course, but he takes evident satisfaction from this challenging work each day.
“The Nissan Research Center is an ideal place for people who love technology and love to make things move, of course,” states Sano. “But I also recommend it highly to those who want to bring new value to society—who want to create something that will have real impact. The Center is fully equipped with an environment that lets people like this reach their full potential.”

A New Image of the World's Elite Scholars

So how did Sano enjoy his time in England? “The streets of the town of Oxford look right out of the set of a Harry Potter movie. Inside the laboratories, meanwhile, you've got the brightest minds assembled from all around the world. All of them were very focused on the mission before them, but they were very down-to-earth at the same time. Their dedication to seeing things through made a deep impression on me-in fact, the image I had of ‘elite’ scientists was flipped around 180 degrees by my time in England!” [Laughs]

Based on an interview carried out in January 2013.