Talking to Nissan’s product planner Tony Baehner, you get the sense that features like the Around View Monitor parking assistance feature, offered on the new 2014 Nissan Versa Note, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the automaker’s future technology plans for their small cars.
During a recent interview with Digital Trends, Baehner indicated there are a number of premium technology features now being considered for the automaker’s less expensive models.
Most of the innovations are being driven by consumer demand, said Baehner, which suggest that the trends could lead to the development of even more cutting-edge technology features in the future that could trickle down quickly.
“We see opportunities with feedback we get from our consumers as well as the direction for marketing small cars…for providing other content and new technology innovations that didn’t’ exist in the past” for more budget-oriented vehicles, said Baehner.
Baehner said there are two major factors driving the new innovations: a growing interest in smaller cars like the $14,000 Versa Note and the development of more cost-efficient ways to develop the latest technologies.
“More and more people are looking to small cars, not just as a cheap car, but as alternatives to larger vehicles than in the past, and there are a lot of innovations that are allowing for more affordable options, so we are able to bring some of those premium applications down market,” he said.
Many of the new car technology features being explored are part of Nissan’s Safety Shield initiative, which is aimed at helping drivers and passengers avoid dangerous situations before an accident occurs.
“Our Safety Shield technology is our suite of technology that is related to recognizing different levels of threats of a collision,’ said Baehner. “It’s an ongoing process coming up with different ways of minimizing risk.”
Years ago, high-tech safety features like the Around View Monitor, which provides drivers a bird’s eye view of the vehicle’s surroundings, was only available on the automaker’s luxury Infiniti brand. But the cameras and in-car video technology have become more affordable – and increased performance – in a short time, perhaps due to the ever-increasing demand for better cameras in cell phones and security systems.
Other high-tech features offered on the new Versa Note include hands-free texting and a class exclusive tire pressure monitoring system with Easy-Fill Tire Alert system that warns the driver when they have enough air in the tires by flashing the car’s lights and beeping the horn.
The Versa Note sold in Europe is also available with rear-vision cameras that alert drivers to blind-spot obstacles. The feature is in demand due to the crossover appeal from other vehicles segments in Europe, said Baehner.
“In Europe, more small cars tend to be more family cars there and not as much here, as well as the price position in the marketplace,” said Baehner, discussing the addition of the more premium feature in the European Versa Note model.
Nissan’s rear-vision camera alert system was first developed for the up-market Infiniti JX crossover and then later adopted for the more affordable 2013 Nissan Altima.
But a growth in the crossover appeal of compacts among U.S. buyers across different vehicle segments could lead to even more premium tech features in American small cars, bringing them more in line with what Europeans are seeing.
“The trend for a families downsizing into a compact or subcompact is still very small,” said Baehner, in reference to the U.S. market. “But we are seeing customers who had previously driven a bigger car downsizing to these up-level features, as well as younger consumers who expect more technology on their vehicles regardless of the price position.”
The high-tech system builds on the carmaker’s existing technology features such as Around View Monitor, Distance Control Assist and Blind Spot Intervention to alert the driver of risk from multiple directions and intervenes to support the driver’s response to avoid potential collisions.
Still, with all of the new safety innovations being explored for Nissan models, Baehner says there will always be a certain level of premium technology experience more specific to the Infiniti brand.
“There various differences between luxury space and un-luxury space and certainly luxury customers expect that they are getting a unique experience and that experience should be in the way that the vehicle drives, in the technology that the vehicle offers in the service experience that they get,” he said. “All of those factors have a different level of expectations for a luxury customer than a non-luxury.”
It’s the continued evolution of that in-car technology that will drive future trends in small cars, much as features like Bluetooth hands free technology started in the luxury space and are now common across model lines, Baehner said.
The trend that Baehner describes isn’t far from some of the engineering developments we’ve seen in the past with safety components such as Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS), which in the early 1970s were also considered a premium luxury feature.
These days, ABS brakes, which help to prevent skidding and loss of steering control when braking hard, are typically a stock feature and even mandated as standard equipment on automobiles in Europe. Other safety tech features that have trickled down more recently include Electronic Stability Control (or ESC), which became nearly mandatory on SUVs after they were shown to roll over more during avoidance maneuvers. That technology is now common, even standard, in many cars, not just SUVs.
There’s even speculation that rearview cameras will soon be mandated as standard equipment on new vehicles in the U.S. for safety reasons as the sensor technology for the feature get less expensive.
Now, with so many high-tech safety features in development, Nissan seems poised to push those boundaries even further, which in the near future could lead to “premium” technology, such as automated parking, being offered as a standard feature on compact cars.
This video from Nissan shows how the Around View Monitor functions: