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Waymo says it’s ditching the term ‘self-driving’ in dig at Tesla

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Tesla’s “Full Self Driving” controversy is spurring action

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

Waymo is saying so long to “self-driving.”

The Google sister company says it is through using the term “self-driving cars” to describe its fleet of autonomous vehicles. And it is subtly pointing fingers at Elon Musk’s Tesla as the reason why.

Waymo says it is committing to “using more deliberate language” in its marketing, educational, and promotional materials going forward. This means the company will no longer refer to its vehicles as “self-driving,” Waymo says. For example, the company is changing the name of its three-year-old public education campaign from “Let’s Talk Self-Driving” to “Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving.”

“It may seem like a small change, but it’s an important one, because precision in language matters and could save lives,” the company wrote in a blog post published on January 5th. “We’re hopeful that consistency will help differentiate the fully autonomous technology Waymo is developing from driver-assist technologies (sometimes erroneously referred to as ‘self-driving’ technologies) that require oversight from licensed human drivers for safe operation.”

The references to driver-assist technologies appears to be a shot at Tesla, which last year activated a software update in some of its cars called “Full Self Driving.” The software, which enables drivers to use many of Autopilot’s advanced driver-assist features on local, non-highway streets, is still technically in beta. But an unknown number of white-listed drivers have received it and have been actively testing it on public roads — often filming and uploading those tests on YouTube.

Tesla has said Full Self-Driving should only be used by attentive drivers with both hands on the wheel. But the feature is designed to assist a driver, and it’s not foolproof: there have been several high-profile incidents in which some drivers have engaged Autopilot, crashed, and died.

Waymo never mentions Tesla by name in the blog post. But the Alphabet company is clearly motivated by Musk’s controversial decision to use the term “Full Self Driving” in deciding to more rigorously police its own language. A key paragraph in the post reads (emphasis ours):

This is more than just a branding or linguistic exercise. Unfortunately, we see that some automakers use the term “self-driving” in an inaccurate way, giving consumers and the general public a false impression of the capabilities of driver assist (not fully autonomous) technology. That false impression can lead someone to unknowingly take risks (like taking their hands off the steering wheel) that could jeopardize not only their own safety but the safety of people around them. Coalescing around standard terminology will not just prevent misunderstanding and confusion, it will also save lives.

There have been increasingly urgent calls to standardize the language used to describe autonomous driving. Ford recently came out in favor of standardized visual cues that autonomous vehicles could use to communicate intent to pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers. Meanwhile, critics continue to assail the five levels of automation as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, the global standard for self-driving, for being overly broad and possibly dangerous. Most experts agree: we need a better, more unified way to talk about self-driving cars.

Tesla, in particular, is seen by most experts as abusing the lack of a common language around autonomous vehicles to overhype its products. Musk recently called Waymo’s approach to autonomous driving “impressive, but a highly specialized solution.” But there is a widening gap between what Tesla claims its vehicles can do and how they actually behave. Musk claimed Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” driver assist feature was capable of “zero intervention drives,” but within hours of the release, videos surfaced of Tesla customers swerving to avoid parked cars and other near misses.

Years ago, Waymo considered developing an advanced driver-assist system like Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” version of Autopilot but ultimately decided against it, having become “alarmed” by the negative effects on the driver. Drivers would zone out or fall asleep at the wheel.

The experiment in driver assistance helped solidify Waymo’s mission: fully autonomous or bust. To that end, Waymo recently began offering rides in its fully driverless vehicles to the general public in Arizona.