What does the word ‘self-driving’ even mean?

By Tyson Fisher, staff writer


It’s a term you have probably seen a lot lately and should expect to see pop up often for … well … the rest of our lives at this point. But what does it mean?

That’s a really good question and one the consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog is demanding the California Department of Motor Vehicles clarify. In a letter to the director of the DMV, Consumer Watchdog asks the department to “start a formal rulemaking to enact a regulation protecting consumers from misleading advertising.”

More specifically, the consumer group is talking about the use of the term “self-driving” whenever the DMV is referring to vehicles that feature any level of automation. Consumer Watchdog claims that “self-driving” can leave a dangerous and sometimes fatal impression that a car is more capable of driving itself than it actually is.

The DMV apparently agrees with them. In fact, in its letter, Consumer Watchdog points out that the DMV had already addressed the issue with this statement from late September 2016:

As specified in the revised draft regulations, a vehicle cannot be advertised as autonomous in California unless it meets the definition of “autonomous” specified in Vehicle Code §38750 and the autonomous vehicle regulations. The terms “self-driving,” “automated,” “autopilot,” and other statements that lead a reasonable person to believe a vehicle is autonomous constitute advertising regulated by the truth-in-advertising provisions in the Vehicle Code.

Even Congress hesitates to use certain words when addressing autonomous vehicles, or whatever you want to call them. On Nov.15, 2016, the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade held a hearing exploring the issue of self-driving vehicles. Dr. Mark Rosekind, administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and several industry stakeholders were quick to point out that there are several different levels of automation. When referring to the highest level – vehicles that require no human responsibility regarding the vehicle or the environment – the word “self-driving” was used.

In other words, it’s very clear that “self-driving” refers to vehicles where no human is required. Vehicles that do not exist, at least not legally. Therefore, Consumer Watchdog has every right to be concerned about the use of the term.

As explained in the subcommittee hearing, self-driving cars are proving to be difficult to implement. There is no consensus among stakeholders as to when self-driving vehicles will be ready for the market.

What appears to be happening is that everyone is moving ahead faster than the technology itself. We’re trying to regulate an industry that doesn’t even exist yet. Heck, we can’t even agree on the correct nomenclature yet.

If we do not even know what to call something, maybe it’s too soon to put them on the road going 70 mph or more. LL