07 January, 2021

Waymo removes references to ‘self-driving’ vehicles

Mobility-service and technology provider Waymo has started the new year by stating it will no longer use the term ‘self-driving vehicles’ in relation to its activities.

The business, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., believes that although the change may seem small, it is a very important one. ‘Precision language matters and could save lives,’ the company states, suggesting that confusion around the term ‘self-driving’ can place unrealistic expectations on how far advanced the current technology is.

Instead, Waymo will use the term ‘fully autonomous driving technology’ when it talks about its systems. It hopes that this phrasing will help to differentiate its fully autonomous technology from its driver-assist systems that it is also developing – although the company notes these are often erroneously referred to as ‘self-driving’ technologies as well. These systems require oversight from licenced human drivers for safe operation.

‘This is more than just a branding or linguistic exercise,’ the company states. ‘Unfortunately, we see that some automakers use the term “self-driving” in an inaccurate way, giving consumers and the general public a false impression of the capabilities of driver-assist (not fully autonomous) technology. That false impression can lead someone to unknowingly take risks (like taking their hands off the steering wheel) that could jeopardise not only their own safety but the safety of people around them.’

Incorrect terminology

Currently, there is no system available on the market that allows a driver to give total control of a vehicle to onboard systems. Instead, there are a number of driver-assistance packages that rely on driver interaction and are designed to help drive the vehicle. Adaptive cruise control, parking guidance and lane-assist are examples of such protocols, which fall under the SAE level 2 category.

However, there is confusion around how far advanced autonomous systems are, with the terminology used by some carmakers adding to the uncertainty of how reliant drivers can be on their vehicle to take over.

In Germany, Telsa has been banned from using the term ‘Autopilot’ on its advertising and website. The carmaker made claims that Autopilot would allow for ‘automatic steering, acceleration and braking, taking into account vehicles and pedestrians.’ This included ‘automatic driving on motorways from entry to exit, including motorway intersections and overtaking slower vehicles.’

In its ruling, the court said: ‘By using the term ‘autopilot’ and other wording, the defendant suggests that their vehicles are technically able to drive completely autonomously. Furthermore, the impression is given that autonomous-vehicle operation is permitted in road traffic law in the Federal Republic of Germany, but this is not the case.’

This ruling followed a fatal crash involving a Tesla vehicle on Autopilot, while the driver was playing a game on their phone.

Using the correct terminology when it comes to autonomous technology will therefore help keep expectations in check, and could help to save lives by reducing expectations of the technology. This, therefore, gives drivers the knowledge that they need to remain in control at all times, while new, fully-autonomous systems are in development – although these could be some years away from making it to the road.

Safety first

As it looks to move away from the phrase ‘self-driving’, Waymo has also renamed its public education campaign as ‘Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving’. This programme represents a diverse set of communities coming together with the shared belief that autonomous driving vehicles can save lives, improve independence, and create new mobility options for all. This includes various resources designed to help people understand autonomous driving and how it can benefit everyone, especially when it comes to safety. From helping blind and partially sighted people get around and discussing the benefits of autonomous driving around schools and communities, the education programme aims to highlight the benefits of the technology far beyond the driver's convenience.

‘The safety and independence that a fully autonomous ride with a Waymo Driver provides to our clients is immeasurable,’ commented Marc Ashton, CEO, Foundation for Blind Children – a partner of the Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving programme. ‘It means that our clients, no matter the level of their visual impairments, can travel just as independently as their sighted peers. They can travel in their own time and their own terms. This distinction between ‘self-driving’ and ‘autonomous’ properly conveys this freedom.