The Great Self-driving Revolution Gets a Language Check

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
the great self driving revolution gets a language check

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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3 of 6 comments
  • Dal20402 Dal20402 on May 28, 2020

    But Elon Musk will continue to bilk people by fraudulently promising them "Full Self-Driving."

    • Imagefont Imagefont on May 28, 2020

      And some people will continue to believe their Tesla’s can drive by themselves now and they’ll die while not looking at the road. You can’t fix stupid.

  • El scotto El scotto on May 28, 2020

    Imagine the chagrin of some people if Cadillac's (GM's) Super Cruise works better than Tesla's Autopilot. I-70? I-95? I hear you calling.

  • Jeff S I ignore the commercials. Never owned a Mazda but I would definitely look at one and seriously consider it. I would take a Honda, Toyota, or Mazda over any German vehicle at least they are long lasting, reliable, and don't cost an arm and a leg to maintain.
  • GregLocock The predictable hysteria and repetition of talking points in the meeja is quite funny. it does not divide Oxford into six zones. it restricts access at 6 locations , one on each road, to reduce congestion in the town centre. Florence, which faces the same issue, traffic and narrow historic streets, lined with historic buildings, simply closed the entire town centre off. Don't see anybody whining about that.
  • Jeff S I have rented from Hertz before and never encountered this but if I had I would sue them. Would not want a gun pointed at me and thrown in jail for renting a car.
  • Arthur Dailey I did use a service pre COVID to get the pricing that the dealers were alleged to have paid the manufacturer. It also provided 'quotes' from multiple dealers .
  • Arthur Dailey Has anyone else concluded that we may have a new 'troll' on this site?