Here is Why We Need to Call Them Self-Driving Cars

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By Dr. Lance B. Eliot is the AI Insider for AI Trends and contributes regularly.

Stop for a moment and ponder this simple question. How do you refer to the newly emerging cars that are able to be driven by automation? Some call this automotive next-generation of cars by using the moniker of “self-driving cars” (it’s what I prefer too, which I’ll explain in a moment). Some refer to them as driverless cars. Others call them autonomous vehicles. A few people are calling them by the catchy acronym HAV’s, which stands for Highly Automated Vehicles.  I’ve also heard people utter exceedingly “science fiction” sounding phrases such as auto-piloted vehicles, and even the downright scary sounding robot-cars or the cooler version, robo-cars.

I realize that you might be thinking, does it really matter what we call them? Isn’t a rose, a rose, by any other name? I emphatically argue that it does greatly matter what we call them. The names we use for things do matter. Many stakeholders are going to care about these mobile, AI-driven machines with wheels that cruise along our streets and highways. At first, it was mainly technologists that cared about them. Then, business persons cared about it, since the research labs where these futuristic cars were born have begun to see actual practical progress. Now, we’ve got politicians involved, regulators wanting to have a say, reporters weighing in about them, and the general public itself is queasy, excited, unsure and at times outright concerned about where these magical beasts are going to end-up being and doing on our roads.

Let’s parse each one of these alternative ways to refer to self-driving cars. First, consider the phrase of “driverless cars” – I would assert that by using the word “driverless” you are making an important semantic mistake. You are suggesting that there is no one and even nothing that drives the car. Apparently, the car is just able to drive without any kind of intervention or control.  Now, I know that those of you that are advocates for the phrase “driverless cars” will say, Lance, come on, the driverless part of things refers to the notion that there isn’t a human driver involved. Further, those advocates would say it is “obvious” that a driverless car means that it is a car driven by a computer and it is implied that by saying driverless there is no human driver and thus who or what else could be driving the car other than a computer. To me, this is incredibly tortured logic. It requires us to make a mental leap that because it says “driverless” that it is really trying to say “human driverless car.” I assure you that many people don’t and aren’t able to make that leap.

Furthermore, I think there is an even more sinister aspect to the driverless car naming. I believe it allows for a ready-made excuse for the automation that is driving the car. In other words, suppose a “driverless car” rams into a wall unexpectedly and not purposely. Well, some would say that’s what you get if a car is driverless, i.e., there is nothing at all driving the car. It takes attention away from the real fact that there is something driving the car. There is automation driving the car. And it should be held responsible, which I mean to suggest that whomever wrote the system and put the system in place is responsible. By using the phrase “driverless cars” we are going along a slippery slope of forgetting and even hiding the fact that there is automation driving the car, and it, and those behind it, need to be accountable for what it does.

That’s why I prefer to say self-driving cars. It immediately suggests that the car is able to drive itself. The car is doing the driving. There is a “self” driving the car, and it is generally obvious that it is not a human. Most instantly get the idea that self-driving means that the car has some kind of AI-based capability that allows it to do the driving of the car. This phrasing of self-driving car is a compact way to say it, using words that are easy to understand, and pretty much rolls off the tongue.

I promised that I would examine all the variants, and so now let’s take a look at the other phrases. Calling these cars the phrase of “autonomous vehicles” has historically what they have been called in research labs. There is a tradition there. The reason why this isn’t quite as useful as self-driving cars is that the word “autonomous” is one of those primped ten dollar words.  I’ve seen non-technical people that have their eyes glaze over when they hear the word “autonomous” — it just sounds like a really big-time weighty word. I am not suggesting that the general public could not handle it, but just that it is the kind of word more naturally spoken by techies and less likely to catch-on in everyday use.

This brings up another facet, namely the aspect that the word “vehicle” is being used in the phase of autonomous vehicles. Again, this uses a rather formal word.  Sure, people refer to their Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and so I realize that the word “vehicle” is accepted in general use, but I think that most people tend to say the word “car” rather than using the word “vehicle” when thinking about cars.  Of course, autonomous vehicles is actually a broader terminology than saying self-driving cars, since the word “vehicle” could mean any kind of vehicle, whether a car, a motorcycle, and so on.  I know that you might be worried that if we go with “self-driving car” as a phrase we will get stuck trying to come up with a name for motorcycles (self-driving motorcycle, autonomous motorcycles, headless motorcycles, or what?).  We can cross that bridge when that day comes.

You can probably guess what I think of the Highly Automated Vehicles phrasing. Surprisingly, I do kind of like having a nifty acronym, in this case HAV, but I doubt it would catch-on. We already have HOV in common use, which refers to High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes, and I would wager a bet that if we also try to use HAV it will become confusing to everyone, i.e., did you mean to say HAV or HOV? I once again think the word “cars” is better for now, versus using the word “vehicles” and so I suppose we might aim for HAC (Highly Automated Cars).  But, this is lacking too. By saying “highly automated” it is kind of a slippery way of being noncommittal about the automation.  It is “highly” automated and so does that mean it can actually drive the car, or is it really just a cruise control kind of thing? Self-driving car beats out the HAV because you right away know what the automation can do, namely a self-driving car is able to self-drive that car!

The phrasing of robot-cars or robo-cars can be rejected outright. The use of the “robot” part of the phrasing makes us think of movies that have transformer-like robots, which we don’t really have. If you were making a car that had a robot that actually walked and got into the car and drove it, then I suppose you might start saying robot-car or robo-car. Admittedly, there are robots that can indeed do that right now, in a limited way. Overall, though, that’s not what we’re going to see in self-driving cars. There will not be a robot in the front seat. All of the AI and computers will be hidden from view, stashed away in the engine compartment and other areas of the body of the car.

For the above reasons, I am an advocate of calling these new-fangled cars by the phrase of self-driving cars. It is the simplest, most elegant, catchy, and meaningful way to do so. The last phrase that I wanted to tackle is the “auto-pilot vehicle” phrase. What is wrong with saying auto-pilot? I think it perhaps overly anthropomorphizes the car. When you hear the word “pilot” you tend to think of an airplane pilot. Auto-pilot is already used widely for referring to airplanes. Most people don’t really know what an auto-pilot system can and cannot do. Trying to reuse the word “auto-pilot” for cars is going to be confusing and also have people get muddled in what the vehicle automation is able to do.

The next time that you hear someone refer to self-driving cars, and if they use one of these other buzzwords, I hope you’ll raise up your hand and offer to politely “correct” them about how they are referring to these new cars. At research labs, I realize many would not get caught dead using the phrase self-driving cars because it seems superficial and almost gutter-like. For them, I expect that the HAV or similar will continue to persist, which is fine. For most of the rest of the world, I anticipate that the self-driving car moniker will gain popularly and in a Darwinian fashion win out over other competing phrases. Either way, we should not call a rose by the name of sunflower, which would be confusing and I think that a rose should be called a rose. Just as a “self-driving car” should be referred to as a self-driving car.