Autonomous driving: Do we need a common language to move forward? 

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter



In this article, we’re focusing on communication and asking: 

  • How does the way we talk about driverless tech impact its progress? 
  • Would shared terminology increase understanding among the general public? 
  • Should we create a common language to be used by all manufacturers? 


Autonomous, automated, self-driving or driverless – it all means the same thing, right? At the moment, these terms are all used interchangeably to describe vehicles capable of sensing their environment and operating – to one degree or another – without human involvement. But it is easy to see how each could be interpreted slightly differently, and we know that different manufacturers, technology companies and even platforms like 2025AD opt for different terms to describe the same thing. That begs an important question; how do we make sure we talk about the same thing, even though we might not be using the same words? 

MicrosoftTeams-image (50)
Source: shutterstock

Unclear terminology limits understanding 


In the process of developing, launching and rolling out any new technology, communication is vital. Without clear, direct discussion of new developments and their predicted impact on both users and wider communities, it’s incredibly difficult to understand the benefits of such progress or to distinguish different offerings in the same field. In the realm of driverless technology though, language seems to evolve, shift and grow with each step forward. Because of that, the true meaning behind the terms we hear all the time is becoming muddied. 


Alongside this continued lack of clarity comes further questions. Without a single, clear definition of a self-driving vehicle, how can we expect the wider public to understand and accept the technology? When some are referred to as driverless vehicles, others autonomous cars and yet more robo-taxis, how can governments and regulators develop the necessary guidelines to govern all vehicles free of a human driver? In this way there is no doubt that a missing common language could stall progress simply by putting the onus on individuals outside the industry to learn, understand and overcome the nuances of existing, and every-expanding, terminology. 

MicrosoftTeams-image (47)
Source: shutterstock

What terms do we use to describe AVs right now? 


Some authorities in the industry, like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), have tried to create clarity but still there are flaws in the ways we currently talk about autonomous technology. The terminology in constant use has, at various points, been referred to as ‘malleable and shapeless’ and even those definitions provided by the SAE have shifted over the years. In fact, we recently wrote of how the six recognised levels of automated driving were changing to reflect the fact that levels 0-2 are now better defined as ‘driver support features.’  


There is a huge range of language used to describe what we might call driverless vehicles, and each has its own benefits and flaws. ‘Driverless’ is certainly among the most used, and it gets the point across in so far as these vehicles require no human driver. It’s not, however, as though the vehicles are entirely free from any controlling body as complex technology is still needed to direct the vehicle. 


‘Autonomous’ then, might provide more clarity, suggesting as it does that the vehicle itself controls all driving functions. Yet some suggest that an autonomous vehicle, in the truest sense of the word, would be self-aware and capable of making its own choices. That would be a dangerous assumption to make in this context. That, perhaps, is why organisations such as the SAE opt for the term ‘automated’ instead. 


The term ‘robo-car’ seems to have fallen out of favour for its oversimplification of the technology behind these vehicles, at least in the most common popular understanding of the term ‘robot’. Still, the phrase ‘robo-taxi’ is as popular as ever when referring to AVs built for ridesharing. Some argue we should refer to only ‘vehicles’ to broaden the conversation, including everything from cars to boats, planes, drones, trucks and more. Others have no issue with the focus on cars alone as these are seen as the largest area of interest for a general public.  


The conversation is large and ongoing, and the nuance behind each term only seems to grow with discussion. Yet as we explore even the most basic terminology, the advantages of a shared language become clearer than ever. We’ve spoken before about how AVs themselves might develop a common language to speak with human road users. Ford called for the same back in 2018, so the industry clearly realises the benefits of unified communication. Now it’s easy to see why manufacturers too are moving towards the use of shared terminology. In short, it could enable better understanding of what AVs are, and vitally, what they’re capable of.  

MicrosoftTeams-image (48)
Source: shutterstock

A new language is emerging 


While a larger conversation has been rumbling on for some time, Tesla’s controversial naming of several advanced driver assistance features has prompted a definite response across the industry.

Though ‘autopilot’ and ‘full self-driving’ features were launched on Tesla models, the vehicles themselves are not fully self-driving, nor can they run on autopilot in the sense that human drivers still needed to be present, alert and able to take control at a moment’s notice. The function was even renamed in Germany after outcry for its potential to mislead and cause harm on public roads. 


The response is understandable. Although terminology like ‘self-driving’ may seem self-explanatory, the flexibility that still exists in the language around automated vehicles creates risks to public understanding and acceptance. And if people feel they are left in the dark about what they are actually signing up for, there will be no trust. Without trust, there will be no acceptance. Misuse of such terms could also pose a physical risk should the people using such ‘full self-driving’ features expect a vehicle to do more than it is able. This, it seems, is precisely why Waymo dropped the term ‘self-driving’ recently. 


Now, others are following suit. In the US, a major lobbying group that comprises a host of AV operators including Cruise, Ford, Argo AI and more is changing its name. Founded as the Self-driving coalition for safer streets back in 2016, it will become the Autonomous vehicle industry association. The change may be subtle, but it seems to mark a definite step away from the term ‘self-driving’ and towards ‘autonomous vehicle’ as an industry standard. 

The real question now is whether this shift in approach to language will be adopted across the industry. Large manufacturers like Ford, Waymo and Cruise are clearly taking the lead here, but without the support of businesses across the full lifecycle of driverless development, it may prove difficult to create a consistent, common language. Doing just that, though, is sure to have a positive impact on general understanding. And after greater understanding of the technology, increased acceptance will surely follow. 


What do you think? Would a common language around autonomous vehicles make functionality clearer?

Do you think it’s dangerous for terms like ‘self-driving’ and ‘autopilot’ to be misused?

Which term would you use to describe the tech? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 

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