A lobbying group created in 2016 by Ford, Volvo, Uber, Google, and Lyft called the Self-Driving Coalition For Safer Streets announced a name change and will herewith be known as the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA), so if you want them to come for dinner, you now know what to yell out into the neighborhood. This change is good in that it distances itself from the misleading “Self-Driving” terminology so loved by Tesla, but I think it’s still using words that have the potential to confuse. And words are important.
The group — which now also includes almost all the big players in the business, including Argo AI, Aurora, Cruise, Embark, Ford, Kodiak, Lyft, Motional, Navya, Nuro, TuSimple, Uber, Volvo Cars, Waymo and Zoox — is notable in that it does not include Tesla, the company that seems to be most directly referenced by this name change.
Here’s how the group explains the name change:
The new name aligns with the members’ commitment to precision and consistency in how the industry, policymakers, journalists and the public talk about autonomous driving technology. The association recently called on all stakeholders to clearly distinguish between AVs and driver-assist to boost consumer trust and understanding. AVIA advocates for autonomous vehicles, which perform the entire driving task. AVs do not require human operators, not even to serve as a backup driver; the people or packages in the vehicle are just passengers or freight.
Though not explicitly stated, it’s hard not to associate this name change as a way of distancing from the work Tesla is doing with their Full Self-Driving Beta software, which has been criticized for a number of issues, including poor performance, testing on public roads without real safety drivers or the consent of other users of the road, or, most significantly here, the use of the term “Self-Driving” when the system is, in fact, not a self-driving system at all.
All of this terminology stuff is a big deal because the assisted driving/automated driving space is already confusing enough, with most people not understanding the admittedly confusing SAE Levels of Driving Automation. The fact is, any confusion about what a given car is capable of and what the demands are on the driver can cause wrecks.
So, in that sense, I think removing “Self-Driving” from this group’s name is a step in the right direction. But I also think continued use of the word “Autonomous” is still a problem.
In my writing here, I’ve been transitioning to the term “automated” when it comes to cars that are capable of driving themselves via the use of a suite of sensors integrated with computer systems. The use of Automated Vehicle as the preferred term has some proponents in the industry and was actually suggested to me by Alex Roy. I think it makes a lot of sense.
Our terminology for a lot of new tech tends to overstate the capabilities; the most relevant and ubiquitous example, I think, is Artificial Intelligence (AI).
While modern AI is certainly impressive, it’s not at all what I think anyone would actually call “intelligent,” a word that’s mostly been used to describe human brains.
Of course, it’s been used to reference computers since the beginning, and examples like the Intellivision video game console, for example, which called itself as “intelligent television,” are well-known, and nobody expected the machine that played a blocky version of BurgerTime to be a rival for the human mind, even if that egg was awfully hard to evade.
My issue is that the use of AI as a term imbues the whole field with an idea that what’s happening inside those computers — brute-force learning what faces look like or finding patterns in radio waves or whatever — is akin to actual intelligence, which it really isn’t. AI is providing some remarkable capabilities and achieving fascinating things, but it is very much not intelligence, not as we understand intelligence to be.
The same goes for the term “Autonomous Vehicle.” Autonomy as a concept implies a high degree of independence, the ability to choose one’s own fate, and make independent decisions. These are precisely the things that no computer of any kind can really do.
A computer, no matter how sophisticated, is going to be limited by the parameters of its program and how that program instructs it to react to inputs, from sensors, direct commands from other computers, or human input. This is not autonomy.
There’s a reason AI is sometimes referred to by cynical programmers as just being a crapload of IF-THEN-ELSE conditionals all linked together, because there is a grain of truth there: AIs don’t really think, and Autonomous Vehicles aren’t actually autonomous.
This may not seem like a big deal, but I think how we refer to the technology in our lives — especially ones that we may be literally putting in charge of our lives — should at least imply the spectrum of its capabilities, so we can, even subconsciously, understand how much to trust it.
The idea of an Autonomous Vehicle is something that does more than just reacts or follows a program. It’s something that can make independent decisions and come up with plans and ideas; this does not exist, and may never exist.
But an Automated Vehicle — well, that implies something else. Automation implies a machine that’s capable of operating itself, but it does not imply anything beyond that. Automation is understood to be limited. It does its job on its own, but that’s it. An automated vehicle can be understood to be able to handle the mechanics of driving, while implying that somewhere in that mix, a human is calling the most fundamental shots: where to actually drive, when to pause or stop, and so on.
I think a much better name for the new organization would be the Automated Vehicle Industry Association, and I’d implore this new organization to make this change, as it’s a far more accurate description of the technology that the group will be lobbying for.
Besides, the acronym AVIA will still be the same, so all of those t-shirts and jackets and hats and thongs will still work just fine.