Cars capable of driving themselves may be on the showroom floor sooner than you think, but whether they should come with all the current essentials – including a steering wheel and pedals on the floor – has the auto industry at a fork in the road.

Ford sided with the pioneering engineers at Google last week in announcing plans to introduce limited-use vehicles without traditional controls within five years. Some other major automakers – and virtually all of them are well along in their work on self-driving vehicles – say they will introduce automated elements one step at a time, until drivers accept that they no longer need to control their cars.

The different approaches are rooted in conflicting views of safety and what the public is willing to accept.

“It’s almost like asking people before they even really knew what an iPhone was, how the iPhone might change their lives,” said Johanna Zmud, senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Tesla, which has been aggressive in rolling out limited automated steering and similar features, made headlines worldwide this year when one of its cars was involved in a fatal crash with a tractor-trailer. Although the vehicle’s “autopilot” system was far from fully autonomous, and the crash is still being investigated, the death of its driver seemed to underscore worries about the transition to self-driving cars.

Tesla said “neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

“This to me is the crux of the problem,” said Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has been on the leading edge of autonomous-vehicle technology. “On one side, you have humans who become too comfortable and stop paying attention. The other side of the equation is that the technology for vehicles to drive themselves is just not mature enough.”

Google decided on the no-wheel, no-pedals approach after allowing its employees to drive the company’s test cars. Despite plenty of warnings, the experiment did not go well.

“There was a brief period when people would be a little nervous and monitor the car very carefully,” said Google engineer Nathaniel Fairfield, “and then they would start to relax and they would sort of trust the system, and really over-trust the system, and start to get distracted.”

After watching one driver rummage around in his back seat in search of a phone-charging cord, Goggle engineers decided it was too risky to create a system in which drivers would be expected to take control of the car at a critical moment.

The dangers caused by drivers who become distracted or fall asleep are well established. In 2014, 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 injured in distracted-driving crashes. That same year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 7 percent of all crashes and almost 17 percent of fatal crashes involved drowsy driving.

When it comes to self-driving cars, a Stanford University study indicated that distraction “may make transitions to driver control more difficult” and that “drivers may sleep for significant periods on long journeys, increasing the difficulty of rousing them and having immediate engagement.”

Rajkumar said he is more convinced than ever that introducing safe-driving features gradually is the prudent path.

“We are able to drive only because we have common sense when it comes to things we’ve never seen before,” he said. “But computer software does not have that level of cognitive abilities … .”

While Google is trying to go straight to a fully autonomous vehicle, many companies that sell cars today are embracing a more gradual transition.

Audi says it will sell “piloted driving” systems in some models starting in 2018. And they will be more restrictive than Tesla’s autopilot of today.

The 2018 Audi A8 will be able to operate hands-free, but only on controlled-access highways and only up to 35 mph. This would allow a driver to safely fumble around in a Capital Beltway traffic jam. But it would not allow the car to drive itself on the Florida highway where the Tesla was going 74 mph when it crashed.

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