By Jake Spring
CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - Infiniti, the luxury division of Japanese carmaker Nissan, is considering rolling out highway self-driving capabilities for most new models, its president said on Tuesday, potentially overtaking German rivals in a race to offer autonomous driving.
Executives for Chinese and global automakers speaking at final day of the Global Automotive Forum in Chongqing urged the industry to pursue autonomous driving as an advance that will reduce congestion and traffic deaths.
Autonomous driving on highways is considered the first step to a fully self-driving car. So far few brands have made the technology available to customers.
U.S. carmaker Tesla is a notable exception, having already rolled out highway autonomous driving in a software update to the Model S.
German luxury brands like Daimler's Mercedes and BMW offer semi-autonomous features such as stay-in-lane technology and automatic braking on top-end models.
For Nissan's Infiniti, only the Q50 sedan is currently equipped with its latest generation steering system that allows for autonomous driving above 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour on the highway.
"This will be rolled out as we are launching new vehicles one by one," Roland Krueger, Infiniti's president, told Reuters.
"Whenever we are launching the next cars with such a steering system or the next generation of these systems, then of course we would offer those features to our customers."
More advanced autonomous driving features, such as those beyond highways, will require advances in infrastructure and regulation, Krueger said.
The luxury brand is planning to step up its investments in autonomous driving in China by launching an accelerator to nurture smart transportation-related start-ups and is considering locations in Beijing and Shanghai, he said.
A similar effort in Hong Kong, where the brand is based, is supporting a start-up that produced an app to monitor open parking spaces, for example. That capability could potentially lead to a car being able to automatically guide itself to an available parking space, Krueger said.
Autonomous drive will appeal to younger, more daring buyers, that the brand targets, especially in China where Infiniti's average buyer is in their mid-thirties, he said.
Despite recording 34 percent sales growth in China last year, Infiniti remains a niche brand in China with sales of roughly 40,000 cars last year - roughly as many as BMW or Volkswagen's <VOWG_p.DE> Audi sells in one month here.
Krueger declined to give a sales forecast for China in 2016.
"We expect to grow definitely in a more normalized way than before," he said.
(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)