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Nissan and NASA team up to develop self-driving cars

When it comes to future-technology buzzwords, few are as evocative as “self-driving cars” and “NASA.”

So the news that Nissan and America’s space agency will team up on a new project to develop self-driving cars should have futurists all atwitter.

The five-year research project will involve researchers from Nissan’s Silicon Valley facility and the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. They’ll work to develop autonomous systems and “prepare for commercial application of the technology,” Nissan says.

NASA already has plenty of experience with robotic vehicles, of course. You’ve probably heard of its Mars rovers.

This test will be strictly Earthbound, though. A fleet of self-driving Leaf electric cars will be used as couriers and controlled from a central point, sort of like how NASA controls its rovers from a remote command center.

The project is intended to prove the viability of remote-controlled ground transportation, and Nissan will share components it developed for self-driving cars so far. The first cars in the test fleet will deploy before the end of the year.

Related: Self-driving Audi A7 makes 550-plus mile journey to CES

For its part, Nissan hopes to put a self-driving car on sale by 2020, and has already made some progress toward that goal.

It demonstrated a self-driving Leaf prototype at its Nissan 360 media event last year, and claims the safety systems it currently offers will form the building blocks for full vehicular autonomy.

Nissan will also launch a “traffic-jam pilot” system in 2016, and “multiple-lane controls” in 2018 as stepping stones to its ultimate goal.

However, the self-driving car Nissan plans to put on sale in 2020 may not be fully autonomous. The company previously said it will still require a human driver at the wheel.

That driver won’t have to wear a spacesuit, though.