Fully autonomous cars were once the pipe dream of a utopian future.
Ten years ago, self-driving cars seemed so far-fetched that it wasn’t even worth bringing them up in conversation. We might as well have discussed the feasibility of bubble-powered fighter jets.
Today the reality of an autonomous future is closer than most of us realize.
Many major automakers, led by Tesla, have recently boasted about their autonomous plans and showed off early versions of their technology. Ford has quietly sat on the sidelines. So quietly, in fact, that it’s been criticized for not announcing plans for a self-driving future.
Ford shook things up recently, though, when it finally broke its silence and said it hopes for fully autonomous cars in just five years. The company’s vision brings up some new possibilities that could change transportation as we know it.
Autonomous cars have so far served more as driving assistants than chauffeurs. Even in Tesla’s mostly hands-free cars equipped with Autopilot, the driver is required to stay alert and ready to take control at any time. That’s why all autonomous cars so far still have steering wheels.
Ford envisions something else entirely.
By 2021, Ford’s first generation of autonomous cars will be available for the taxi and ride-sharing markets.
Ford CEO Mark Fields said,
Autonomous vehicles are going to open up opportunities for the elderly, people with disabilities, and people not old enough to drive themselves, so we’re designing the first generation of autonomous vehicles specifically to be used for ride-hailing and ride-sharing, which is another seismic shift in the transportation landscape.
Not only that, but Ford’s cars won’t come with steering wheels, brake pedals, or any other controls for human occupants.
Let that sink in for a second.
In Ford’s vision of the not-so-distant-future, there would be no legal driving age, because there would be no actual driving. A 12-year-old could, theoretically, hop in a car and let it take her to the movies. Elderly folks could transport themselves to doctor’s appointments. The blind could have the freedom of car-based mobility.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has defined five levels of automation, with Level 0 being a vehicle that requires full human control at all times and Level 4 being a vehicle that “is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.”
Most other automakers are dabbling somewhere between Levels 2 and 3, but Ford believes it’s best to jump straight to Level 4 and eliminate the need for a driver to share control with the vehicle.
It’s a bold vision, and one that, if successful, could lead to the transportation utopia of our dreams.
Would you ride in a self-driving car that had no driving controls for humans?