Ford's reason for not fitting driverless cars with steering wheels is as sensible as it is scary

What’s the point if you can’t nod off? Picture: Waymo

In the wave of autonomous vehicles predicted to hit the market during the next five years, Ford and Google’s designs stand out for the same reason: they don’t have steering wheels.

Keeping a steering wheel in an autonomous car, along with the requirement that a driver must be ready to take over within 10 seconds, makes it a “Level 3” vehicle.

There are six level of autonomous vehicle classification. Level 0 is driven by a human, assisted by warnings, whereas Level 5 requires no human intervention at all apart from setting the destination and pressing the start button.

Essentially, Ford and Google don’t agree with the middle ground. A car, in their view, is either driven by a human, or not at all.

It’s all about safety, and testing by both companies has revealed an alarming pattern of behaviour in test drivers – they couldn’t stay awake.

Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief, told Bloomberg the drivers were “trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening”.

“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.”

(UPDATE: Ford responded to Bloomberg’s story by claiming that the statement “Ford engineers were falling asleep” was “inaccurate”. It admitted Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering Ken Washington used the words “our engineers” in the original interview, but was instead referring to “broader industry research”.)

Waymo’s driverless car. (Source: Alphabet/Google/Waymo)

That’s led Ford and Google to split with the autonomous crowd and work towards skipping Level 3 – favoured by the likes of Nissan, GM, Audi and Honda – altogether. When Ford debuts its autonomous vehicle in 2021, not only will it be lacking a steering wheel, you can forget about brakes and accelerators.

In testing, Ford has tried all sorts of bells, buzzers and other alarm systems to keep a driver awake. Even shotgun drivers nodded off as well.

The problem is, most people actually enjoy driving. And testing is proving that not driving is boring.

Ford, which this month invested $US1 billion over five years in startup Argo, has also experimented with eyetracking and facial recognition systems to keep a driver alert, which to date has only annoyed drivers with all its “yelling” at them.

Volvo is coming to the party as well. While its S60 (Level 3) is expected to be on sale some time this year, the company legendary for its commitment to safety has pledged to make its cars “deathproof” by 2020.

Volvo will take responsibility if a crash happens while one of its cars is in autonomous mode, but not if the driver’s hands are on the wheel. One of Volvo’s solutions is a steering wheel that tucks away when you switch your car to autonomous mode.

But recent remarks from Volvo’s CEO Hakan Samuelsson indicate the company’s foray into mid-tier technology could be brief.

“If you are doing something else, research shows that it will take two minutes or more before you can come back and take over,” he told Bloomberg.

“And that’s absolutely impossible. That really rules out Level 3.”

NOW READ: There’s one major obstacle to a driverless car future that tech can’t solve — and that’s you

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