Our technology is having trouble with settling on a name. That’s OK before it’s mainstream but will eventually present a problem. When people in the field are polled on what name they like, there is no clear winner. Let’s look at some of the commonly used candidates:
Recently, this has become the most common term used in the press. There is a “Driverless Car Summit” and the Wikipedia page has used that name for some time.
In spite of this popularity, the term is very rarely used by people actually building the vehicles. Attendees at the “Driverless Car Summit” when polled all said they dislike it. Until recently, the most common news story about a driverless car would say, “then the driverless car rolled down the hill and careened into the other lane, hitting a tree.”
My personal view is that this term is like “horseless carriage.” Long ago the most remarkable thing about the automobile was that it had no horse. Here it’s the lack of driver (or at least lack of action by the driver.) Of course, these cars have something driving them, but it’s a computer system. While this term is most popular, I am confident it will fade away and seem quaint, like horseless carriage did.
This term is popular among developers of the cars. Its main problem is that it’s too long to be a popular term. The acronym SDC is a reasonable one. In web hits, this is tied with Driverless Cars, but falls behind that name in searches and news mentions.
This term was most popular in the early years, though it is most commonly found in research environments and in the military sphere. In the military they also use “unmanned ground vehicle” — another term too unwieldy for the public —though they usually refer to remote controlled vehicles, not self-driving ones.
Annoyingly, the acronym “AV” has another popular meaning today. Most of the terms here are too long to become common use terms, and so will be turned into acronyms or shortened, but this one has an acronym problem.
Automated Road Vehicle
This term has minor traction, almost entirely due to the efforts of Steve Shladover of UC Berkeley. In his view, the word autonomous is entirely misused here and the correct term is automated. Roboticists tend to differ — they have been using “autonomous” to mean “not remote controlled” for many years. There are two meanings of autonomous in common use. One is to be independent of direct control (which these cars are) and the other one, “self-governing” is the one Steve has the issue with. As a member of the program committee for TRB’s conference on the area, he has pushed the “automated” name and given it some traction.
Unfortunately, to roboticists, “automated” is how you describe a dishwasher or a pick-and-place robot; it’s a lower level of capability. I don’t expect this terminology to gain traction among them.
I selected this term for these pages for a variety of reasons. It was already in modest use thanks to a Science Channel documentary on the DARPA challenge called “robocars.”
- Talking to teams, they usually just called their vehicle “the robot” or “the car.”
- It is short, easy to say, and clear about what it means
- It is distinct and thus can easily be found in online searches
- It had some amount of existing use, notably as the title of a documentary on the Science Channel about the DARPA challenges
However, it is doing poorly in popularity and only has about 21,000 web pages using it, so I may need to switch away from it as well if a better term appears. Today it reminds people too much of robotics, and the trend is to move away from that association.
On the other hand, no other term satisfies the criteria above, which I think are very good criteria.
Other coined terms
There have been a variety of attempts at other coined terms out there. None have received any traction. It is quite possible a new coined term will come along. If a major vendor, such as Google or a car company, were to promote a new generic term, they might gain success for it. A major press campaign using the new term would also bring it into play. As noted, I think the world needs a term that meets the criteria I list under “robocars.”
I have a number of possible terms I like, but of course none are in use yet. In particular, I think it makes sense to borrow from other languages. The term “Makina” which actually means car in a few languages, is one that appeals to me.
It also does something I believe will be important in the future, which is removing the word “car” from the name. I firmly believe that the full realization of this vision is not a car, but “the thing which comes after the car.” As such, not calling it a car has some merit.
On the other hand, the preliminary stages of the technology are cars, and it makes sense to call them that.
While I suspect people in the comments may want to suggest new terms, the reality is that without something to push them into public awareness, they will not go far.
It may make sense to use different names for different classes of technology. We’ve already seen the NHTSA 4 levels (which are already getting use in public discussion) and Mercedes’ nice description of 4 similar levels: Feet Off, Hands Off, Eyes Off, Body Out. The world may be served at the very least by calling the “body out” car by a completely new name. (Note that body out just means that the car is capable of unmanned operation, but it can still have people in it who have no need to attention to the road.)
It also may make sense to have a name for NHTSA level 2, cars which do basic lane following under constant human supervision. These cars are coming out now, with terms like “Traffic Jam Assist,” “Automated Driving,” “Piloted Driving,” “Temporary Autopilot” and “Super Cruise.” The last term, used by GM/Cadillac is actually the one I like best, though they might have plans to use it as a brand rather than generic term.
This technology, while interesting, is really a huge step below technologies that let the driver read a book or be absent from the vehicle, that it may make sense to use entirely different words. Of course, the makers of these technologies want them to sound futuristic, so they might resist that.
In many cases, the name of a technology that the public adopts often comes from the early builders of the technology, as long as their name is not large and unwieldy like “unmanned ground vehicle.” Long terms get abbreviated or replaced. So it may be up to the pioneers to promote a new name.