Last week, Bloomberg reported that Ford engineers are dozing off while testing the company’s self-driving cars.
“These are trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening,” company Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair told the publication. “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.”
Ford has reportedly attempted to mitigate the problem with audible and tactile alarms – buzzers, vibrating seats and steering wheels, etc. – and has placed a second engineer in each autonomous test vehicle to rouse his peer, should he start to drift off.
But the automaker has since disputed the notion that engineers are dozing in its self-driving cars, sending a statement to Autoblog which claims that “reports that Ford engineers were falling asleep while testing autonomous vehicles are inaccurate.” The company didn’t address the second part of story, that alarms had been installed to keep engineers alert, although the statement admitted that “high levels of automation without full autonomy capability could provide a false sense of security, [which] presents a challenge for the driver to regain full awareness and control of the vehicle if a situation arises where the technology cannot function.”
The concerns over engineer alertness do serve to highlight what Ford sees as a problem inherent in what the Society of Automotive Engineers defines as “Level 3” vehicle autonomy – that is, any car that can fully drive itself only some percentage of the time. The need for human intervention, even occasionally, could undermine the very purpose of the self-driving car. Buyers will wonder: “Why did I spend that extra premium for this if I have to be alert and pay attention?” says Ford CEO Mark Fields.
For that reason, Ford will skip straight to Level 4 with its own first autonomous car, releasing a self-driving production vehicle in 2021 that has no steering wheel or pedals for human input. The car will only be available for use in ride-hailing and ride-sharing fleets.