New York Times columnist David Leonhardt sent journalists, myself included, into a Twitter tizzy this week after he called Volvo's Pilot Assist advanced driver assist system both "driverless" and, confusingly, "semi-driverless."
As others at The Drive and Jalopnik have pointed out, neither of these terms is accurate. Leonhardt seems to not only misunderstand the capabilities of the system he was using, but overlook the progress of the development of autonomous driving.
It may seem that we're nit-picking, but this confusing vocabulary is a symptom of a wider issue with communication of driver-assistance and semiautonomous technologies that could lead to dangerous driving situations, especially as more advanced systems begin to roll out.
Cars are already chock-full of driver-assistance features: More than half of cars on sale today offer available adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, automatic parking and pre-collision warning, according to an Edmunds report. However, consumer education of these technologies is relatively low. Forty-nine percent of car buyers said a salesperson spent 15 minutes to an hour explaining driver-assistance features.
The challenge is greater once carmakers start marketing self-driving and "hands-free" technology. While SAE International has a handy guide to five levels of automation, even these general categories have a great deal of variation within them.
Take, for example, Level 3 autonomy, which means the car can drive on its own in certain situations, but humans must be able to take over at a moment's notice. This definition can range from Audi's Traffic Jam Pilot, which only operates in speeds up to 37 mph on a divided highway, to BMW's upcoming iNEXT electric crossover, which the automaker says will be able to drive up to 80 mph and make lane changes on its own. Suffice it to say, these two supposedly similar systems provide vastly different experiences.
Adding to the confusion is that there has been little effort at general education around autonomous technology. It doesn't help that carmakers use some combination of vague terms to describe their driver-assist systems, specifically: auto, pilot, cruise, assist, drive, super and pro.
The Gray Lady got her social media pile-on for playing fast and loose with definitions, but there are true safety risks to misunderstanding what your car can do. If this technology is to be safely introduced to the public, the industry needs to use clear language to make sure that each and every person using it knows exactly what it's capable of.
— Katie Burke