By on May 28, 2020

Words have the power to inform or mislead. The descriptors “military grade” or “assault-style” did great things for public acceptance of a recent Canadian gun ban, prompting legions of voters to believe the government just banned once-legal, high-capacity machine guns. The reality was far different, of course.

In the automotive world, critics of the haphazard roll-out of certain advanced driving aids have long railed against the use of words like “autonomous,” “semi-autonomous,” and “self-driving” when referring to systems that most certainly are not fully autonomous. It seems the Associated Press agrees with their arguments.

It’s a win for clarity.

On Wednesday, the AP Stylebook (aka the writer’s bible) targeted these words, saying they do not apply to systems that still require a driver to be present.

Early proponents and purveyors of advanced driver-assist systems didn’t help public safety by overstating the abilities of such systems, leading to videos of boneheaded drivers taking naps in speeding Teslas. As we’ve seen, Tesla’s Autopilot suite does not always function as intended; several deaths and numerous non-fatal crashes can attest to that.

While automakers, chided by public safety groups, have more or less learned their lesson re: language, writers who spread word of the latest technologies to the masses have a role to play, too.

Yours truly is guilt of having used the term “semi-autonomous” in several instances. While technically accurate in a hazy sense, the inclusion of the word “autonomous” implies that the vehicle can operate completely independent of a driver for part of the time. As in, you could flip a switch and the vehicle does everything, from garage to destination, rather than handling, say, highway cruising duties while the driver maintains awareness of the road and remains ready to step in at any time. That’s what the current Level 2 vehicles on the road today offer; the former scenario remains the domain of pilot projects by the likes of Waymo and Cruise LLC and Uber Technologies.

“The term driverless should not be used unless there is no human backup driver. As of now, there are no autonomous vehicles for sale to the public, although many are being tested on public roads,” AP advised.

“Some vehicles have driver-assist systems that can perform tasks such as changing lanes, driving at low speeds, or keeping a safe distance from vehicles ahead of them, but they still need human supervision. These should be referred to as partially automated.” (Emphasis ours.)

“Avoid the term semi-autonomous because it implies that these systems can drive themselves. At present, human drivers must be ready to intervene at any time.”

Hopefully the new guidance is taken to heart by the more zealous among us.

[Image: General Motors]

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