Does this mean we need to skip straight to full steering wheel-free autonomy?
As we’re painfully aware, self-driving cars are poised to take the industry by storm once the technology is refined to the point that drivers can rely on it to get from point A to B without intervention. However, as Bloomberg has recently found, Ford is encountering a problem with the technology that could delay its release by a few years. That would be the fact that its autonomous car test drivers can’t stop falling asleep behind the wheel, which can pose a huge problem for obvious reasons.
Currently, even the most sophisticated of semi-autonomous driving systems available for purchase require the driver to be paying attention and on hand to take over control if a situation arises where the system cannot be relied upon. The only problem is that as they are today, the systems are good enough that human drivers quickly gain trust in them and feel comfortable diverting their attention to emails, text messages, or even a snoozing session. It’s one of the suspected reasons behind the high-profile accident involving an Autopilot-driven Tesla Model S that crashed into the underside of a semi-truck, killing its driver. Ford engineers are apparently finding out how easy this mistake is to replicate.
“These are trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening,” said Ford product development chief Raj Nair in an interview. “But it’s human nature that you start trusting the vehicle more and more and that you feel you don’t need to be paying attention.” Ford has installed bells, buzzers, warning lights, vibrating seats, and shaking steering wheels and have even hired copilots, all in attempts to keep their engineers awake during long trips where their job is to do nothing but sit behind the wheel and intervene if needed. This is leading Ford to believe that it needs to skip past level three autonomy (where the car can drive itself but leaves steering wheels and gas pedals intact for human takeover if the system fails) and go right to level four autonomy.
This is where no steering wheel or pedal pair is present in the car. Volvo is taking a different approach, and one we can get behind. The Swedish automaker is advocating for level four autonomy, but wants to outfit its self-driving cars with retractable pedals and steering wheels to allow for morning commutes to be system-driven, giving the driver a chance to catch up on emails. On the way home, the idea is that a driver could find a nice pleasant road and take control, if anything to get joy out of the driving experience. Uncertainty is high at this stage of development, meaning the first generation of autonomous vehicles could come packing either level three or four autonomy, but in either case, expect the revolution to be here any day.