Developing the Vocabulary of Autonomous Vehicles

Thanks to the efforts of tech giants like Tesla and Google, the world is on the cusp of a revolution on the road.

As self-driving cars inch closer to reality, they’re popping up on neighborhood streets, making headlines, and generating a lot of legislation.

Until the federal government and industry luminaries can come together to create a unified vocabulary for self-driving cars and establish a universal set of rules and regulations, these technological marvels may just find themselves stalling before they can leave the dealer’s lot.

New DOT Regulations

Earlier this year, Jacob Brown lost his life while driving his 2015 Model S Tesla in the autopilot mode.

According to the car manufacturer, Brown’s fatal accident was the first one ever for Tesla’s autopilot feature, which has been driven more than 130 million miles. In fact, there are even reports that Tesla’s Autopilot feature has been instrumental in saving at least one life.

In August, a Springfield, Missouri man managed to drive 20 miles with the help of Tesla’s Autopilot feature after suffering a pulmonary embolism in rush hour traffic.

Stories like these are becoming increasingly common in the United States as Tesla’s autonomous vehicles make a slow entry into the driving world. Their prevalence in today’s news cycle only serve to highlight the need for universal communication between authorities and manufacturers.

Today, following the Department of Transportation’s announcement about its new regulations for autonomous vehicles, Jim Resnick with the New York Daily News wrote, “I would question the ‘Autopilot’ label for Tesla’s Level 2 autonomous features. The driver of any car is still responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle regardless of technology on board. ‘Autopilot’ implies otherwise.

No other car company that offers Level 2 autonomous features – and there are many – imply as strongly that their cars can drive themselves.”

While the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers supported the new Federal Automated Vehicle Policy released by the Department of Transportation, there’s still a great deal of debate on how to handle self-driving vehicles.

The federal government, industry experts, and businesses are still attempting to get on the same page about automated cars. It’s rare to find a united front even among the different faces of the industry.

For example, Resnick reported that the, “NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] just scrapped its own definitions of the various levels of autonomous, self-driving capabilities and adopted the widely-accepted Society of Automotive Engineers’ definitions of Levels 0 through 5.”

A Real Need For an Autonomous Vehicle Vocabulary

Before we all hop into cars that can pilot themselves on the road, consumers, regulators, and manufacturers need to adopt a vocabulary for autonomous vehicles, and it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

Autonomous vehicles are coming, so the best we can do as a society is to  insure that everyone is on the same page.

As Resnick asked;

“Whether or not he [Jacob Brown] had a full understanding of the ‘Autopilot’ system’s limitations is a considerable question.

If Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ were labelled something less promising like ‘Speedminder,’ or ‘PaceTronic’ would Jacob Brown be alive today?”

Though that sentiment may strike some as alarmist, it aptly points out our collective lack of knowledge regarding self-driving vehicles.

Standard driving terminology is a part of the overall vernacular used each and every day.

Drivers know the difference between “braking” and “accelerating,” but that same knowledge base isn’t necessarily a given for those driving with an autonomous system onboard.

There is currently no standard language used for the features and functionality of autonomous vehicles, which can only lead to problems both on the road and — potentially — in the statehouse.

It’s safe to say that the general public isn’t familiar with the five levels of autonomous vehicles, for example.

This means that car buyers have a limited grasp of the technology they drive off the lot. If those people who buy regular cars are any indication, most autonomous vehicle owners likely don’t take the time to thoroughly read the vehicle owner’s manual to learn every nuance and detail.

Additionally, the Department of Motor Vehicles isn’t testing drivers on their understanding of autonomous vehicles, meaning a driver’s license does not necessarily indicate a thorough understanding of the technology.

Basically, there is not currently a method for gauging a driver’s comprehension of autonomous vehicles, even if they have purchased one of these cars already. That’s just one potential shortfall of an industry that’s not focused on instilling in its customers a working knowledge of the vehicles they drive.

Ultimately, the burden lies with manufacturers.

These companies have to make it as clear as possible to consumers what every piece of autonomous technology does so these vehicles are properly operated.

While an “Autopilot” functionality might have a cool ring to it, a driver might not be fully aware of the extent of this feature and could end up hurting himself and others, as we saw in the Jacob Brown’s tragic case. Truly, there must be a universal and accurate vocabulary adopted for autonomous technology.

Terminology used in a Tesla autonomous system needs to be the same as the terminology used in a Ford autonomous car so drivers are fully aware of what they are doing behind the wheel.       

However, consumers have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Operating an autonomous vehicle without the knowledge of what each and every feature means for the driver can only lead to more accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

It’s critical to understand that autonomous technology does not mean it’s permissible to watch a YouTube video, respond to text messages, or engage in any other distracting activity while you’re in the driver’s seat. Quite simply, autonomous vehicles do not replace responsible drivers.

As governing entities and auto conglomerates align their understanding of autonomous vehicles, a new standardized vocabulary for this technology must be adopted across the board.

Of course, there are numerous aspects to autonomous vehicles that need to be further developed and regulated. However, as Resnick points out, the terminology is a crucial component to this new technology, and “the words matter.”