Op-ed: Alphabet's Waymo warns that describing vehicles as 'self-driving' before they're ready can lead to unsafe driver behavior

Dr. Mauricio Pena, Waymo
Key Points
  • Waymo Chief Safety Officer Mauricio Pena explains why the Alphabet subsidiary stopped using the term "self driving" to describe its vehicles.
  • Some cars marketed as fully self-driving have features known as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) instead.
  • Using the term "self-driving" to describe cars with ADAS can lead drivers to give the car more responsibility than it's able to handle.

In this article

A Jaguar Waymo self-driving vehicle on display at the 2018 New York International Auto Show.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Yesterday's science fiction is a real transportation option today for a growing segment of the population. I'm referring specifically to autonomously driven vehicles (ADV), which are picking up passengers without anyone in the driver's seat in Metro Phoenix, gearing up to test in long haul trucks and delivering packages to residents in the Bay Area as you read this.

The fact that the technology is already being deployed for specific commercial applications signifies that it's on track to deliver on its long-promised, broad-based potential benefits. But important work remains to continue to build trust and acceptance of this transformational technology.

At Waymo, where I'm Chief Safety Officer, ensuring that the public has an accurate perception of the technology is a top priority. We're confident that autonomous driving technology has the potential to save lives—as demonstrated by study after study. But we also know that many people don't fully understand how ADVs work, and that people fear what they don't understand. 

Several years ago, we launched a public education campaign aimed at demystifying the technology for the general public, because we've seen that the more people learn about it, the more eager they'll be to embrace it. Through that work, we have witnessed how language shapes people's perception, and how the words we use to describe technology will ultimately influence how people engage with and use it. 

That's true of working in any nascent industry, because you're not just creating the foundational technology that future generations will build on, but you're also introducing it to people for the first time. That is just as true for building ADVs here at Waymo as it was for me when I worked on innovative rocket launches and commercial space travel.

And it's a big reason why we decided to drop the term "self-driving" from our lexicon earlier this year, and instead started using the term "autonomous driving," exclusively. It's not just a branding exercise, and it's not just a hypothetical—it's about limiting confusion to improve safety outcomes. 

Some vehicles sold to the public and marketed as fully self-driving have features known as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS)—which, by design, perform only limited parts of the full driving task and, as a result, require a licensed human driver to remain behind the wheel and to stay attentive at all times. Using the same terminology to refer to different types of technology creates confusion for consumers and can create a false sense of security. 

If someone is overly confident in a technology because they misinterpret the words used to describe it, they could unknowingly take risks that jeopardize their own safety and the safety of the people and cars around them. Safety experts have already concluded as much. We know from our own research how users operating with ADAS can quickly give the vehicle more responsibility than it's designed to handle — even if the user has been given clear, unambiguous instructions not to. 

We want to ensure that our commitment to safety carries across our technology, to our operations, and through to our public communications. That consistent thread is critically important. And the reality is that the vehicles in our fleet, at Waymo, are operated by an advanced suite of hardware, and software that ultimately automate the entire task of driving. By explaining that clearly and accurately with precise language, we're not only ensuring consistency in our communications but we're hoping to actually save lives.

Dr. Mauricio Pena is the chief safety officer of Waymo, where he oversees all of Waymo's safety efforts and teams, including system safety, field safety, fleet operations safety and safety research.

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