Ford's first car without a steering wheel is slated for ride-sharing fleets in 2021 but could spend another decade in development before selling directly to customers.

A Ford executive has warned that its first fully autonomous vehicle might not arrive in showrooms for a decade or longer.

Speaking at the SAE WCX World Congress Experience, Ford's VP of research and advanced engineering, Ken Washington, said that consumers won't get a chance to purchase a fully autonomous car until sometime from 2026 to 2031, according to an Automotive News report.

The comments may seem at odds with Ford's intention to launch a car without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals by 2021. Washington cautions, however, that Ford will operate a ride-sharing fleet of self-driving vehicles years before selling such vehicles to customers.

"It's really hard to guess and predict the pace of the technology," he said. "Our current view is the adoption rates will be relatively gradual."

Despite the cautious timeframe, the executive promises that fully autonomous cars are inevitable thanks to revolutionary advances in computing and data processing.

"This is not a research project," he added. "This is something we're going to make happen, and others will, too."

The most optimistic automakers expect Level 5-capable cars to be ready in just a few years.