Self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, driverless cars and robocars


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:

Driverless Cars

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.

Alain Kornhauser has proposed that Driverless Car refer only to cars capable of fully-unmanned operation, and those that need an occasional human be called self-driving. As yet this has not caught on.

Self-driving cars

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.

Autonomous Vehicles

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.

Highly Automated Vehicle (HAV) and Automated Driving Systems (ADS)

For some time, HAV was the term used in NHTSA proposed regulations. It never caught on. The new regulations use ADS, it is unclear if this will catch on -- the acronym of course is an English word so it can't easily be searched for.


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.

The stages

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.


I've started to insist on using robotaxi in conversations with people. I generally talk about the future, rather than current developments, and so I was looking for that "post-car" word you wanted.

I like that taxis are not owned by the passenger: for me this is a really important aspect of autonomous vehicles. The likes of Uber and Hailo are already 'dehumanizing' the driver. In London, the 'cabbie' is traditionally part of the experience, but the apps are already starting to cut them out, with no interaction even over cash and tipping. It feels to me like this will be the closest experience for robots in future, and so provide the most natural segue.

As you say, the current research stages are definitely cars with bits added on, so perhaps warrant a car-derived name.

Examples from other fields:
- Walkman and iPod as brand names gone generic
- Bixi as a very useful short-hand for bikeshare bikes (and apparently derived form bike-taxi, even though they go station-to-station so are far more like bus/transit).

I use this term a lot too, but as a variant of robocar. My own prediction is the world will see both owned cars, taxis and owned cars which do part time work as taxis, and the market will decide what is more popular, but for a long time there will be plenty of each (as well as plenty of regular cars.)

But the technology will be largely the same in the newest owned cars and taxis, so it will be unsure if people will use a different basic name.

Ultimately I don't think "robo-" anything is going to gain any traction. It's a prefix that makes geeks prick up their ears, but the general public is much less excited by it. They seem to find it even distasteful, as an indicator of dehumanization.

"Domo arigato, Mister Roboto..."

I'd personally dislike "taxi" being part of the name, because in my mind that connotes a high cost of service for short haul trips. I also think of taxi drivers as some of the most discourteous drivers on the road, and I'll often feel unsafe in a cab as they speed through and weave in and out of traffic. I'd hope that a self-driving taxi would behave much more "by the book," as it doesn't feel a personal need to maximize its total number of flag drops per day. Additionally I often hear tales of taxi drivers being unreliable in making pick ups in remote regions (the Sunset and Richmond in SF), or not wanting to take passengers out to particular areas ("I don't go to Queens" in New York City). Plus I know disabled people who have a lot of trouble getting reliable pick ups from accessible taxis, even when they're going to and from very central and well-served areas (e.g. downtown San Francisco).

I'm personally hoping for self-driving cars to be a large number of things that current taxis are not: Reasonably priced, reliable at pick ups and drop offs regardless of area, more adaptable to a variety of needs (single passenger, large party, accessible), less harrowing to ride in, more courteous to other drivers on the roads, safer in general, etc.

Regardless, the established taxi companies have a huge vested interest in fighting against the term "taxi" to mean anything other than a human-driven vehicle. They're undoubtedly already going to be fighting against self-driving car services in any way they can, like they've already been fighting against Uber, Lyft, etc. Might as well not try to adopt terms that will even more directly antagonize them. Of course, taxi companies might try to jump on the wave and adopt self-driving cars themselves, but they'll be at a disadvantage with their existing older infrastructure, organization, entrenched workforce (taxi drivers unions, dispatcher unions, etc.), and so on (if they pay pensions that'll be another ongoing cost).

As for (semi-)genericized brand names, there are many more examples: Asprin, Britta, iPad, Kleenex, Q-tip, Xerox, Coke (in some parts of the U.S., notably the South), Hoover (in the UK).

"Tesla" has potential as a generic name for electric car, depending on how quickly and successfully they manage to push downmarket. They will, of course, fight against such genericization.

"Autonomous Vehicles" (AV) and "Automated Road Vehicle" (ARV) remind me of how the term "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle" (UAV) has become popularly replaced by the word "drone."

Hopefully the media aren't going to try to start using something like the term "drone car" for cars that can drive without a human inside, as a play on the existing popularity of "drone."

I think the replacement of "UAV" by "drone" in this way points out a danger of using an awkward or poorly chosen three letter acronym. There's a good chance that a less attractive substitute will take hold in the public's consciousness. (Another example is "SDI" being replaced by "Star Wars." Admittedly it was originally a replacement done by supporters, which backfired badly.)

I'm still holding out hope that some day in the future the term for self-driving cars will just be "auto," since it has a nice encompassing meaning as an ultimate shortening of any of "autonomous automobile," "automated automobile," or "autopiloted automobile."

"I called for an auto to pick us up."
"From the airport you can just take an auto to get here."
"I prefer taking an auto to downtown, so I don't have to find or pay for parking."
"Our kids take autos to school, since we don't have time in the morning to drive them all ourselves to several different schools, and we feel it's safer than the bus."
"Let's take an auto out to the nightclub. That way none of us has to be the designated driver."
"I actually own my own auto. I need to be able to keep all my tools/sales samples/etc. with me on client/on-site/etc. visits. It'll drop me off with just what I need right at the front door and then go park itself as far away as it needs to go. If I find I need something else I left in it I can just call it back."

All of these example sayings using "auto" are so much nicer than using any of the terms in the OP.

"Autonomous" means the same thing as "driverless", so why use a more obscure word? I hate when people use obscure words just to make something sound fancier. The military does this all the time. No no, it's not a "tank". Don't be silly. It's an armored all-terrain vehicle with heavy ordinance (AATVHO).

I use "self-driving car", or even "car that drives itself". It's simple and obvious. The first few times, people wondered if I was pulling their leg.

I see the appeal of "robocar", but like commenters say, it will be polarizing. It will make people think of caps with propellers on top. I love caps with propellers on top, so for me that's a good thing, but it's something to keep in mind.

"Auto" is cute!

Sneaking in "taxi" attaches too much baggage to the idea. There is a broad and deep discussion about whether people should own the machines in their immediate sphere of influence, or if ownership should be joint and the rules should be made up by committees and bureaucracies. For example, jointly owned cars--no, "taxis"--would mean that you can get into a vehicle and it goes, "sorry, you are on the no-drive list."

I've also started using the term 'self driving vehicle'. I used to use 'driverless' but the term began to irritate me.

Maybe self driving vehicle is to militaristic but I do like the ease of being able to abbreviate it to SDV or SDC.

Self-driving vehicle/car is overall better than driverless vehicle/car (which kind of makes me think of the headless horseman!), but the SDV or SDC acronyms will go down like lead and they'll quickly be replaced by the media and the public with something that will probably be much worse.

"Automatic driver"? "Auto-driving"? "Automatic automobile" probably would have been perfect in the 1950's or early 1960's... (Yeah, I'm still thinking of how we could ultimately end up with just "auto" as the shorthand... :)

""Autonomous" means the same thing as "driverless", so why use a more obscure word? "

Because it doesn't mean the same thing. "self-driving" or "driverless" is an autopilot that keeps the wheels pointed straight ahead, and probably has some degree of lane-following and speed-matching ability. "autonomous" is a car where you get in, sit down, say "drive to the store", and the car figures out the route itself and drives you there *and* parks.

A good name for it is transporter. It could denote everything for unicycle pizza deliverers to big trucks. As airplanes become autonomous you'd have air transporter, and autonomous boats as river/canal/lake/oceanic transporters. So

(land) transporter.

river/canal/lake/oceanic transporter.

air transporter.

As long as the noise it makes is something like this:

I'm betting that we will end up calling it whatever the first successful brand name is.

I vote for "Auto"! Short & snappy while still covering the load. I don't think we will find any simpler term than that.

My only concern is that in some European countries the word "Auto" is already the default word to indicate current human-driven cars. So in the "transition phase" from human-driven to self-driving cars, how would people in these countries distinguish between "Autos" and "Autos"?

That's a common word for the car in much of the world, including US and Canada, not just Europe.

The X-prize wanted "auto auto" but that's terrible too.

Do we not expect that some day ALL road vehicles will have an automatic, self-driving mode?

We went from "horseless carriage" and "motorcar" to just "car." (Not to mention "train car" was already in use, as well.)

Is it not unreasonable to expect that whatever term is chosen, it will eventually be shortened to one or two syllables?

Is it also not unreasonable to expect that eventually the words "car" and "auto" will mean vehicles that have automatic, self-driving modes anyway?

The point is that we might as well get ahead of the game and use a term that we know is going to be shortened to the genericized term eventually anyway. In so doing we can avoid other ungainly intermediate terms that might be foisted upon us by the media like "drone car."

At least in the English language "auto" is a much less popular term than "car," and after shortening from something like "automated/automatic/autopiloted/autodriving/etc. automobile" it could be used to distinguish newer vehicles with automatic, self-driving modes from older ones without, during the transitory period.

The day when they can all self-drive is far away (and the horse and buggy are still around a century later) but that is not the real issue. During the long transition time, and today during the introduction, the world seeks a nice, short and clear term that distinguishes them from their predecessor, which is called the car/auto/automobile

maybe "robomobile" will do? :)

Or "robotomobile". For English it is a little too long. But it sounds nice in my native language (Russian) where the word "automobile" is still widely used, leaving the first place only to "mashina" (like italian "maccina", english "mashine")..

It is good to hear that the latency of the broadcast would be very low of course, but yes what about the latency of uploaded signals?

Hi Brad - just catching up to this thread, and my favorite game of name-crafting.

The Bot Mobile
or in the spirit of the mindless dance - The Mecharina

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