You know how, to many laypeople, autonomous technology actually seems like a very imminent form of transportation, but anyone who’s actually aware of that technology knows how wrong that is? Or the way companies might exaggerate the capabilities of their autonomous tech? There’s a word for that now: autonowashing.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of a great article called “Autonowashing: The Greenwashing of Vehicle Automation” by Liza Dixon. Dixon, a doctoral research candidate, has spent her academic career researching advanced driver assistance systems, human trust in automation, and, more recently, autonowashing, which she describes as “the gap between media and marketing’s presentation of vehicle automation versus its actual technical capabilities and human supervision needs.”
Basically, Dixon opted to coin this work because she recognized that gap between presentation and reality—one that mimicked the process that happened with “greenwashing,” where companies branded their products as better for the environment than they actually are. Dixon specifies that autonowashing generally accompanies partial automation, or Level 2 driver assistance features, which have tended to be presented as being more capable of automation than they really are. She was shocked to find how readily drivers were willing to overrely on ADAS, which translated into dangerous behaviors.
She offers a few examples, like Mercedes-Benz marketing its 2017 E-Class as a “self-driving car” or Tesla naming its Level 2 drivers assistance program “Autopilot.”
Dixon highlights the fact that we’re at a really interesting time in the development of autonomous technology: our cars are capable of doing some pretty incredible things, but that has engendered a sense of complacency. It’s the same kind of complacency that sets in when drivers get used to, say, a blind-spot alert; even though you should still check your blind spot before merging, folks can rely entirely on a light or a beep to tell them not to merge.
Here’s a little more from Dixon’s article:
A corporation eager to profit in the short-term might exaggerate the capabilities of a system’s automation in marketing materials in order to capture the interest of customers. This poses a risk, as users’ ideas about automated systems are formulated long before their first contact with a system, and these ideas influence how they later interact with the system. A user that believes a system is more capable and more autonomous than it really is, is more likely to overtrust and misuse the system, increasing the risk of accident.
Basically, Dixon’s argument here is that words matter, and the words companies have used to brand their semi-autonomous technologies are perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Humans have a set idea of what “full self-driving” means, so using that to describe a product that still requires a human driver is deceiving—and that’s done often intentionally, Dixon argues, to create media hype around the product and in turn to boost sales. It is inherently deceptive to name a product “full self-driving” if it requires a disclaimer that it is not, in fact, fully self-driving.
And it’s bad for the industry as a whole, the same way that greenwashing was bad for the sustainability movement. Autonowashing derails conversation and creates misinformation among consumers who are attempting to educate themselves. It also threatens the future adoption of automation; if people start to question technologies branded as being fully autonomous now, they’re likely to retain that mindset when fully-autonomous technology is actually available.
Autonowashing is a crucial term that’s been making its way into the automotive vocabulary for the past year—and one that’s important if we intend to keep making meaningful progress in the realm of automation.