No Steering Wheel, No Pedals

Experts say that we're far from truly autonomous vehicles — meaning those that fall under the Society of Automotive Engineers' (SAE) Level 5 category. But many companies, including Ford Motors, want to bring us a step closer to this ideal. Ford is aiming to launch a Level 4 autonomous car by 2021.

Ford CEO Mark Fields explained in CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" last Monday that the company hopes to make an autonomous car with "no gas pedal" and "no steering wheel." It's a vehicle that excuses the driver-turned-passenger from taking control "in a predefined area."

"In our industry, the word autonomous is being used very, very liberally. There's different levels of autonomy," Fields explained. "The question that should be asked when a company says they're going to have an autonomous vehicle [...] is at what level."

This refers to SAE's levels of driving autonomy. The SAE actually identifies six levels of driving autonomy — from Level 0, meaning no automation at all, to Level 5 which is full automation. A Level 4 self-driving vehicle, according the SEA, employs an automated system that covers "all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene."

Driving Autonomous Vehicle Leadership

Fields' pronouncements in the CNBC interview, which actually covered a wide range of topics, aren't just whimsical thoughts. In fact, "Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years,” according to Ford EVP for Global Product Development and chief technical officer Raj Nair. “We have a strategic advantage because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people around the world.”

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” Fields said in the August 2016 press release. “We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people – not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

The plan includes investing in technologies by collaborating with companies involved in strong research in the fields of advanced algorithms, 3D mapping, LiDAR, and radar and camera sensors. And now it seems it includes removing the steering wheel and the gas and break pedals too.

Is Ford's vision of a pedal-less and steering wheel-free car the future? More importantly, are we ready for such a vehicle? Well, stick around for 2021 to find out.

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