Calling for Clarity: Auto News Requests Revised Terminology for Autonomous Tech

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
calling for clarity em auto news em requests revised terminology for autonomous

The terminology surrounding self-driving technologies and advanced driving aids has started to earn quite a bit of criticism in the wake of publicized crashes and growing outcry from consumer advocacy groups. For years, the industry has treated all assistance technologies as equal — placing everything on a sliding scale developed by SAE International.

It’s actually a good metric if you’re familiar with SAE’s autonomous ranking system. But to a layperson the differences between SAE Level 2 and 5 don’t mean a whole lot, despite offering completely different experiences. Automakers also have terms of their own, some of which could easily lead customers to believe their products are far more capable than reality allows.

Automotive News recently published an op-ed calling for clarity, and it was so good, we felt inclined to share.

From Automotive News:

Automation, for example, describes the presence of automatic equipment that’s used as one part in an overall process. Autonomy, on the other hand, confers the idea that a system is governing itself and all actions. Self-driving implies that a vehicle is being driven without a human involved, while driverless might indicate no one or nothing is in control at all.Those terms are just the start. Add the likes of semi-autonomous, partially self-driving and driver-assist feature, and the language landscape becomes more cluttered. Throw in industry jargon such as “Level 2 Plus” and Elon Musk’s special dictionary entries for “Autopilot,” “feature complete” and “fully self driving,” and this confounding mix is complete.

Tesla has been repeatedly called out for its misleading Autopilot marketing. While the name seems to indicate the car is capable of driving itself, and its CEO has claimed all Autopilot-equipped vehicles have the necessary hardware for the task, it’s not supposed to manifest until the company issues a TBA software push. And yet this hasn’t stopped drivers from taking their hands off the wheel in an act of woeful overconfidence — sometimes resulting in tragic accidents. Tesla has since been careful to remind everyone to remain in full control of the vehicle at all times, but it’s advice that’s rarely heeded.

Your author was recently watching an episode of Fastest Car on Netflix in which a well-known Tesla drag racer from YouTube took his hands off the wheels and briefly praised the Model S P100D’s self-driving ability on camera. He later took third — satisfyingly beaten by a heavily modified 1989 Ford Mustang and more-streetable 1990 Nissan 300ZX.

Tesla is not the only company that engages in this sort of wordplay, however. Several manufacturers offering advanced driving aids use euphemisms for their technological suites. Automotive News’ Pete Bigelow suggests this is irresponsible and dangerous — potentially contributing to several fatal accidents over the past few years. He also expressed concerns that SAE’s ranking system, while fine for industry insiders, is a terrible tool for educating the general public. The same went for the NHTSA’s “highly automated vehicle” grouping of SAE Levels 3, 4 and 5.

Bigelow suggests adopting terms proposed by Waymo CEO John Krafcik: “If every time someone talked about a ‘Level 2 system,’ they just said, ‘driver-assist system,’ then it’d be so much easier,” he said. “Maybe the definitional framework is wrong. … If you need a driver’s license, then you shouldn’t call it fully self-driving. If you need a driver’s license, call it a driver-assist.”

Go ahead and keep the SAE designations for the industry, but consumers need a streamlined version if they’re ever going to have a clear understanding of what’s actually being offered. Yes, catchy names are part of doing business, but anything that could be construed as misleading (intentionally or not) really isn’t going to do automakers any favors in the long run. Consumers have already started to wise up to the limitations of present-day technologies. Calling something self-driving when it isn’t won’t stand forever.

The best thing automakers can do is try and get ahead of it before people start getting outraged and begin making a big stink about it. It doesn’t take much effort to start a social media campaign, and we’ve certainly seen angry people out for blood over far less.

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]

Join the conversation
4 of 5 comments
  • Islander800 Islander800 on Nov 15, 2019

    Elon Musk should be served with a cease and desist order to stop calling his feature "autopilot". People believe it and are killing themselves and others. Besides, if his level 2 system requires a driver to hover their hands above the steering wheel, ready to take over, WHAT'S THE POINT?

    • See 1 previous
    • Brn Brn on Nov 17, 2019

      Early autopilot in airplanes also required constant attention from the pilot. It's also not "his level 2 system". All L2 systems require the driver be paying attention at all times.

  • Snooder Snooder on Nov 16, 2019

    Fastest Car is just the worst. Hyperdrive was good, and I really hooe they do more seasons, but i have a bad feeling they'll ax it in favor of Fastest Car. Which will be terrible cause that show sucks ass. Goddamn 90% of the show is reality show trash talking and 'human interest' drollery. And then at the end they do a shitty "drag race" that's entirely meaningless. Plus, it feels like they went out of their way this season to find the worst people to cast. Just a bunch of douchebags all around.