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Ford to turn driverless car control into smartphone game

Will passengers be able to steer their driverless car via smartphone? (Photo: Adobe Stock / nikolas_stock)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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Ford receives a surprising patent, Waymo faces pricing issues and an Uber-sponsored study makes a valid point: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

Level 5 is the holy grail of automated driving. Its definition in a nutshell: whatever the road, whatever the conditions, the vehicle is able to drive fully autonomously without human intervention. Level 5 sparks creative thinking across the industry. Because once you’re able to remove steering wheels and pedals, you can completely re-invent the interior of a car.

But imagine you’re relaxing in your fancy driverless car – when suddenly you need a steering wheel. What might sound contradictory at first apparently got the folks at Ford thinking. According to Autoblog, the Dearborne-based company just received a patent that enables passengers to steer an otherwise autonomous vehicle via smartphone. This so-called “Non-Autonomous Steering Mode“ mimics the technology behind smartphone racing games, using the device's gyroscope and accelerometer to determine how to move the front wheels. In an alternative version, passengers would use their fingers to use a virtual on-screen steering wheel in the car’s console. The vehicle would still control acceleration or braking.

As this is just a patent, it is unclear whether it will ever see the light of the day. But it raises some interesting questions. First of all, what might the use cases be? For passing construction areas or taking other routes that the car’s navigation system failed to map? Or maybe as an option to overrule the vehicle’s steering decision? But then if such a fallback option is needed, why not leave a retractable steering wheel inside the car just in case. Second, if the smartphone becomes a steering device, how do we prevent this from becoming another possible gateway for hackers? In the end, it all comes down to the question: do we even want to forego steering a car? Ford’s patent serves as a tangible contribution to this debate. 

Waymo: it’s all about the price tag

While Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacificas still have a steering wheel, the company’s autonomous ride-hailing service is already making driverless runs in Phoenix, Arizona. The 400-rider test program is about to come to end, with Waymo intending to make the service available to the general public this year.

Waymo wants to make its ride-hailing service available to the general public this year. (Photo: Waymo)

A few weeks ago, reports emerged that Waymo’s test vehicles are still struggling with left turns. With the public launch of the service imminent, Waymo seems to be shifting its PR efforts into a higher gear. Talking about their testing efforts, CEO John Krafcik stated that navigating parking lots still represents a challenge to Waymo’s fleet, given that regular road traffic regulation does not apply there. Krafcik told USA Today: "So while that first 10 million miles has been totally about safety, now the next 10 million can also focus on an improved rider experience." The not-so-subtle message: we got road safety covered, so now we can turn to other things, too.

One important aspect Krafcik did not talk about was price. The pilot rides are free of charge but that will change once everyone can summon the robocabs. "If all of a sudden it's $10 to go to the grocery store, I'll have to think twice about that," 68-year old Barbara Adams, part of the early rider program, told USA Today. Waymo has already teamed up with retailers like Walmart to offer subsidized trips in the form of discounts at those outlets. I would not be surprised to see ride fares below those of conventional Uber or Lyft rides, even if that would mean waiving profitability. If any company has enough money in its war chest, it’s Google.

Let’s talk about…safety

So while the jury is still out on whether Waymo’s cars drive safely, a new study raises the question: what does “safe” mean when it comes to driverless cars? The Rand Corp. study (which we have added to our studies database) criticizes the fact that no standard definition for the safety of autonomous vehicles exists – which has a lot do with the competitive considerations of the automotive industry.

The Rand study was funded by Uber's autonomous driving unit. (Photo: Uber)

Since safety assessments of self-driving tests are mandatory under current U.S. regulation, companies have remained alarmingly secretive so far. The study now encourages industry and politics to find a technology-neutral and company-neutral way to measure and compare safety of different vehicles. What style of driving is desired? How are vehicles supposed to handle their own shortcomings?

The study was funded by Uber’s autonomous driving unit, itself not a shining example of transparency. But that doesn’t make the report’s message to industry and lawmakers less important: Please communicate! And please collaborate!

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                        

René Tellers

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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