It’s becoming apparent that in the next few years, driverless cars will be the dominant method of transportation, not just in America, but all over the world.
Millennials, who are more comfortable with technology anyway, are already on board for the advanced vehicles. However, aging baby boomers, who can no longer drive, recognize that a driverless car gives them back a certain amount of independence. And it can also take a lot of pressure off their families as well. Many traditional cars will go to the recycler to make room for the new, autonomous vehicles.
Last September, alternate-taxi company Uber introduced driverless cars in Pittsburgh; Amazon and Tesla plan to introduce them to the public in 2020, with Ford shooting for the advanced technology in 2021.
Testers Falling Asleep
But according to reports, designing the driverless cars isn’t going as planned.
Ford is experiencing problems with the engineers who typically test-drive the vehicles.
Their engineers, who historically have sat behind the steering wheels turning, accelerating and braking, now find themselves with nothing to do.
With nothing to keep their attention, the engineers fall asleep.
It seems that someone riding in the driver’s seat but not driving, puts the non-driver at risk of suffering from a sort of self-hypnotic condition that encourages a person nod off.
Attempts to Keep Drivers Awake
The problem has become so prevalent that the company has needed to enlist the help of other engineers to develop strategies of keeping them vigilant during testing.
Officials have implemented a variety of techniques to keep their engineers awake: Audible alerts, lights and vibrating seats. Even installing steering wheels failed. Almost out of desperation, Ford placed a second engineer in the vehicle. But the result was the same.
The engineer’s awareness is critical because in the real world, drivers are supposed to take control should something go awry.
Ford representatives say the source of the snoozing is that the car’s ride is so smooth, quiet and comfortable that the engineers struggled, and frequently lost their efforts to maintain what is called, ‘situational awareness.’
While the car’s comfy ride might create an atmosphere for napping, company officials add that the engineers are trained to observe their surroundings, but they eventually develop trust in the vehicle, and the riders see no need to pay attention.
Some Ford employees joke that driverless cars will be used more for catching a few winks than for getting from place to place.
Levels of Driverless Cars
In 2016, the U.S. Transportation Department adopted the Society of Automotive Engineers’ automated driving levels. The USTD categorizes cars starting with Level 0, which requires a constant driver input and rises to the fully autonomous Level 5. Level 3 requires “conditional automation,” where the car requests human interaction when necessary.
Last summer, Ford announced its 2021 goal to market a fully-autonomous Level 5 vehicle. The company sees no value in creating a Level 3 semi-autonomous vehicle. From Ford’s standpoint, they will either develop a Level 5 car or nothing.
Others in the tech/automotive industry agree with that philosophy, as combining a car with only minimal capabilities of self-driving with a driver likely to nod off could lead to increased danger on the road, not less. If cars feature “part-time” drivers, who will undoubtedly be distracted with smart phones, kids or reading, the risk of disaster is great.
However, some automakers believe that humans should assist self-driving cars to avoid some collisions or create a necessary human factor in emergencies. Others, like Ford, believe an inattentive or distracted driver would worsen a potentially life-or-death situation.
Sleeping drivers appear to be one of Ford’s biggest obstacles in the industry’s goal to develop self-driving cars. It’s such an issue that the automaker wants to take the controversial stand of eliminating humans from the equation. They plan to remove the steering wheel and pedals from their 2021 driverless cars.
That would kill the Level 3 self-driving cars, which many car companies are now looking at as a myth. It’s negatives make it, as one auto industry insider says, “it’s just not worth doing.”
That means Ford engineers will stay caught up on their sleep.