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Published on February 20th, 2017 | by James Ayre


Ford: Skip Level 3 Autonomous Cars — Even Engineers Supervising Self-Driving Vehicle Testing Lose “Situational Awareness”

February 20th, 2017 by  

The topic of self-driving vehicle technology is a highly partisan one. Some people will tell you that the eventual rollout will more or less eliminate auto collision fatalities, whereas some people will tell you that the technology will never be viable.

Some people will tell you that the vehicles will need to be fully autonomous and without driver controls of any kind (because partial autonomy won’t work), whereas some people will tell you that Tesla’s approach is fine or ideal, and that fully autonomous travel within vehicles that allow the driver to take over when desired are completely workable.

Ford’s product development chief, Raj Nair, seems to come in on the no-driver-controls side of that argument, going by recent comments. The comments concerned the reality that Ford engineers that are meant to be supervising the testing of self-driving vehicles (and ready to take over if need be) are apparently being lulled by the technology into a role that’s too passive for effective monitoring.

Or to use Nair’s wording: they are losing “situational awareness.”

Nair elaborated (in an interview with Bloomberg): “These are 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.”

This is apparently occurring despite the company’s use of various tricks (warning lights, vibrating seats, shaking steering wheels, bells, etc.) meant to keep the driver alert. The company even began utilizing a second engineer whose purpose was to keep an eye on the first engineer. And yet, according to Nair, the engineers are still getting too complacent.

Bloomberg provides more:

“The struggle to prevent snoozing-while-cruising has yielded a radical decision: Ford will venture to take the human out of the loop by removing the steering wheel, brake and gas pedals from its driverless cars debuting in 2021. That sets Ford apart from most automakers including Audi and General Motors Company, which believe drivers can be counted on to take the wheel if an accident is imminent.

“BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen AG’s Audi plan to roll out semi-autonomous cars starting next year that require drivers to take over with as little as 10 seconds notice. On a scale embraced by the US government, these cars would qualify as Level 3 — more capable than cars where drivers do everything, but short of full automation.”

According to Nair, though, Ford will be skipping this “step” completely, and simply moving directly to fully autonomous vehicles. This puts the company on a similar path as Waymo (Google), but a very different one than Tesla.

Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik commented on this subject recently: “Level 3 may turn out to be a myth. … Perhaps it’s just not worth doing.”

With regard to Tesla, the company seems intent to introduce a system within the next few years (maybe very soon) that wouldn’t necessarily require driver oversight, but, owing to potential legal issues, it seems likely that the firm will keep the current fine print that says that drivers are expected to maintain awareness and take over if need be.

In related news, Ford recently announced that it will be investing $1 billion into the self-driving tech firm Argo AI over the next 5 years.

Also related: Tesla Has The Right Approach To Self-Driving Cars

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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