Waymo is dropping the term 'self-driving,' but not everyone in the industry is on board

Kirsten Korosec
·4 min read

Waymo will no longer use the term "self-driving" to describe the technology it has been developing for more than a decade, opting instead for "autonomous."

The Alphabet company said that this seemingly small shift is an important effort to clarify what the technology does and doesn't do. It's also been viewed as an attempt to distance itself — and even the rest of the industry —from the "full self-driving" terminology that Tesla uses to describe its advanced driver assistance system.

"This past year, we explored the importance of language and how terms like 'self-driving car' inaccurately describe what autonomous driving companies, like Waymo, are building," the company wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "Waymo’s vehicles don't drive themselves. Rather, Waymo is automating the task of driving and thus the term 'autonomous driving' is more accurate. The conflation of terms used to describe vastly different technology -- such as advanced driver assist systems and autonomous driving technology -- is referred to as autonowashing and has serious implications for road safety. Researchers find people consistently overestimate the capabilities of driver-assisted features."

Waymo's decision to drop the self-driving term is seen by other AV companies as a call to action by the entire industry. And while the industry is in general agreement on the need for clear terms and an educated public, not everyone is on board with the specific nomenclature Waymo has adopted.

Several industry insiders and founders that TechCrunch spoke to wondered if a push to drop "self-driving" might have the unintended effect of ceding the term to Tesla. Others suggested efforts would be better spent on other means of education.

"We’re pursuing a driverless application of this technology, and will continue to educate the public on its benefits with language that makes a clear distinction between technologies that drive a truck or car as opposed to technologies that assist a driver," Aurora CEO Chris Urmson said. "Rather than rename technology based on misleading marketing efforts of other companies, we agree it is important as an industry to align on clear language to define the life-saving technology we’re building."

The pushback on Waymo is in part an acknowledgement of the company's position in the industry. Waymo, the former Google self-driving project, is one of the leaders in the development and commercialization of autonomous vehicles. Its efforts carry weight and influence in a nascent industry.

Waymo, which changed the name of its education campaign from Let's Talk Self-Driving to Let's Talk Autonomous Driving as part of its announcement, argues that automakers have described or marketed the advanced driver assistance systems in personally owned vehicles as self-driving or semi-autonomous. That, the company says, is creating confusion. Waymo never names Tesla as one of the drivers behind this name change. However, Tesla and its use of the terms Autopilot and FSD has prompted criticism from an array of automotive and safety organizations as well as autonomous vehicle companies.

Waymo points to research that has found that human drivers operating cars, trucks and SUVs that have been marketed as self-driving don't understand the limited capabilities of the technology, which can lead to misuse. The company cited one study conducted in 2019, in which half of respondents believed a driver-assist feature allowed them to drive hands-free, even though these systems require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.

Questions and confusion around how to describe technology that allows a vehicle to operate on its own without a human driver behind the wheel have persisted for years. Terms like autonomous, automated driving, driverless and self-driving have been used interchangeably for a decade, some fading off for a time before popping back up in popularity. Fully autonomous driving is another more recent entrant in the sphere of AV linguistics. Even Waymo uses the term "autonomous" and "fully autonomous" at different times within its blog post announcing its decision to drop the self-driving term.

"Self-driving" has been the go-to term for companies dedicated to developing and commercializing autonomous vehicle technology. Argo AI, Aurora, Cruise, Motional, Nuro and Voyage — other leading companies in the industry — use the term "self-driving" on their websites to describe what they're doing. Zoox is perhaps the one outlier that uses autonomous ride-hailing.

Other companies such as Argo AI are taking a different approach, opting for a storyteller or learn through conversation strategy. Argo AI, which is backed by Ford and VW, launched a podcast in November 2019 and has published about three dozen episodes to date. The company has expanded that effort with the launch of Ground Truth, which Argo describes as a "storytelling platform that provides an inside look at the development of autonomous driving technology."

"Since there's no shortage of hype and speculation about self-driving cars, there is a need for a place where people can get a realistic understanding of this revolutionary technology and how it could one day impact their lives," Argo AI co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky said in a statement about the new platform. "Ground Truth will be a destination for stories not just about the technology, but about the people doing the work, the cities where it will be deployed, and the businesses it can enable."