I’ve previously written about the controversy among driverless car researchers regarding the path to full autonomy, and the divide between those holding out for a clean break to so-called “Level 5” autonomy and those advocating a gradual approach. Some news from Ford this weekend will likely broaden the divide between these two camps.

First, some background. There is a widely accepted guideline for six levels of autonomy, developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers, that defines the steps between conventional driving and complete autonomy. Google researchers, who arguably jump-started the current frenzy around driverless cars with their work in the first half of this decade, recognized early on that intermediate levels of autonomy, especially level 3, suffer from a “handoff problem” – the inability of a human driver to take back control of the vehicle in case of an emergency. This primarily stems from humans’ inherently slow reaction times, and the difficulty of maintaining “situational awareness” while not driving.

image source: Bloomberg

As a result of this concern, Google (whose driverless car effort is now called Waymo) decided that for safety reasons they needed to work towards full level 5 autonomy and skip the intermediate levels. That’s what led them to introduce their prototype with no steering wheel or pedals. But as automobile manufacturers began getting into developing autonomous vehicles, they became increasingly concerned about the logistics of waiting for full autonomy to be ready, the murkiness of liability in the event of accidents, and the huge potential risks of missing out on full participation in the autonomous vehicle market. These are potentially existential concerns for automakers, leading many of them to jump into an incremental rollout of autonomous technologies while stopping short of fully driverless cars.

Most notable for the incremental introduction of autonomous features is of course Tesla with its Autopilot system. The power of Autopilot and its overall great success (despite a few over-publicized incidents) has shown that both approaches have merit. And it seemed as though other carmakers were poised to follow in footsteps more similar to Tesla’s than Google’s.

But Ford made an announcement over the weekend that may change that. Ford has noticed during its testing of autonomous vehicles that its engineers are actually falling asleep. Despite numerous attempts at alarms and even additional human supervision, these trained engineers cannot even maintain the situational awareness to stay awake, never mind to monitor for unsafe conditions and take over control. And the underlying problem being what it is, as the cars get better and humans need to disengage the autonomous systems less and less, the problem will only continue to get worse.

Evidently this observation has led to a conclusion similar to the one Google made several years ago. Ford has announced that starting in 2021, the autonomous cars they introduce will have no steering wheel or pedals. That’s an audacious move, and it will be interesting to see if other traditional car companies follow suit or maintain their current incremental lane.

image source: Ford