Today, we changed our name from Let’s Talk Self-Driving to Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving. Though this may seem like a small shift, it’s an important one. Since 2017, our partners have worked to advance public understanding of fully autonomous driving technology. We believe that words matter, and by continually assessing the words we use and clarifying terminology, we’re also helping fulfill our mission.
This past year, we explored the importance of language and how terms like “self-driving car” inaccurately describe what autonomous driving companies, like Waymo, are building. Waymo’s vehicles don't drive themselves. Rather, Waymo is automating the task of driving and thus the term "autonomous driving" is more accurate. The conflation of terms used to describe vastly different technology -- such as advanced driver assist systems and autonomous driving technology -- is referred to as autonowashing and has serious implications for road safety. Researchers find people consistently overestimate the capabilities of driver-assisted features.
As more people join the global conversation about autonomous driving technology, our mission of educating the public becomes even more important, and sticking to accurate language is a demonstration of our commitment to getting this right.
“Getting motorists ready for autonomous driving technology will be critical to reaping the safety benefits that automation offers,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “GHSA is proud to be a part of Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving as they make this change to promote the use of accurate terminology.”
Fully autonomous driving technology is designed so that a human driver does not take over the maneuverability of a vehicle. You do not need a license to take a ride in a vehicle with autonomous driving technology, and your hands never need to touch a steering wheel.
Some personally owned vehicles on the road today, which may be described or marketed as self-driving or semi-autonomous, depend on a human driver to take control at any moment. Research finds that human drivers operating vehicles that have been marketed as self-driving may not realize the importance of being constantly vigilant and become over-reliant on assistive features.
For example, in an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study conducted in 2019, half of respondents believed a driver-assist feature allowed them to drive hands-free, even though these systems require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.
An even more recent study from AAA Foundation found similar results. When drivers thought they were behind the wheel of a “semi-autonomous'' vehicle, more than half of them spent 30% more time with their hands off the wheel than people who did not think they were in a semi-autonomous vehicle.
In a historic change in 2020, the AP Stylebook, long used as a touchstone for guidance on correct use of language in news, recommended the use of the term “partially automated" rather than “semi-autonomous” when referring to features like lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control.
In contrast, fully autonomous driving technology, like Waymo’s, is designed to handle the entire task of driving without depending on a human driver to take control. Waymo is the first and only company to have a fully autonomous ride-hailing service available to the public today.
"We've been a proud partner of the Waymo-led publication education initiative since 2017, and rebranding as Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving makes sense because it's important consumers understand the difference between some car features like blind spot or lane departure warnings and fully autonomous vehicles,” said Tom Egan, CEO, Foundation for Senior Living. “For seniors who have lost the ability to drive these convenience features may increase safety, but they don't overcome the hurdles they face that are a barrier to their continued driving. Waymo gives seniors a safe mode of transportation and we fully support their rebrand."
As we move into 2021, we’re eager to take this opportunity to spark conversations around the use of the term autonomous. By using precise language, we believe we can advance public understanding of a technology that holds the potential to save lives, improve independence and create new mobility options.
Join us in the most important conversations about how autonomous driving technology may shape the future of safety, mobility, community, and society.