As Ford Motor Co. (IW 500/4) has been developing self-driving cars, the U.S. automaker has started noticing a problem during test drives: Engineers monitoring the robot rides are dozing off.

Company researchers have tried to roust the engineers with bells, buzzers, warning lights, vibrating seats and shaking steering wheels. They’ve even put a second engineer in the vehicle to keep tabs on his human counterpart. No matter -- the smooth ride was just too lulling and engineers struggled to maintain “situational awareness,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief.

“These are trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening,” Nair said 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.”

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 Co., which believe drivers can be counted on to take the wheel if an accident is imminent.

Not Quite Driverless

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 U.S. government, these cars would qualify as Level 3 -- more capable than cars where drivers do everything, but short of full automation.

Ford plans to skip that level altogether. The automaker has aligned with Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, which made similar discoveries related to human inattention while researching Google’s driverless car.

“Level 3 may turn out to be a myth,” Waymo Chief Executive Officer John Krafcik said of autonomous cars that require human intervention. “Perhaps it’s just not worth doing.”

Ford and Waymo’s views show there’s a rift developing among the creators of autonomous cars over what role -- if any -- humans should play when cars begin driving themselves. Most automakers believe that, at least initially, people must supplant the robot to avoid crashes in complex situations. Others contend that asking an inattentive human to respond in seconds to a life-or-death situation is a recipe for disaster.

Level 3 Poses Safety Concerns

“There’s evidence to suggest that Level 3 may show an increase in traffic crashes,” Nidhi Kalra, co-director of the Rand Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, said this week during a U.S. congressional hearing. “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to suggest that it should be prohibited at this time, but it does pose safety concerns.”

A U.S. Transportation Department policy last year adopted the Society of Automotive Engineers automated driving levels. Level 0 vehicles require constant human control, while Level 5 vehicles will need no help from humans. Level 3 is what the SAE calls “conditional automation,” in which “the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene.”

Advocates of Level 3 contend a human backup is required for safety and to allow consumers to become comfortable with technology that will eventually take the wheel from their hands.

“We like the levels,” Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, told reporters at a conference in Las Vegas this year. “It helps with consumer understanding and getting trust built into the marketplace, as opposed to going straight to the moonshot right off the bat.”

Next year, Audi will introduce Traffic Jam Pilot, a Level-3 system that allows hands-free driving at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. If the car’s sensors detect a situation that requires human help, it will give the driver 10 seconds to get hands on wheel, eyes on road, foot on pedals. If the driver doesn’t respond, the car will slow to a stop in its lane.