Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, and which pioneered the self-driving car business, says it’s done with the term “self-driving.”
Waymo says that some automakers are using the phrase “self-driving” inaccurately, giving the public a false impression of what driver-assist systems are capable of. Waymo will instead refer to its vehicles as “fully autonomous,” and hopes the shift will differentiate it from technologies meant to merely assist human drivers.
“This is more than just a branding or linguistic exercise,” Waymo said in a blog post published Wednesday. “Precision in language matters and could save lives.”
Waymo didn’t call out a specific automaker in its blog post. But for months it has clashed with Tesla, which sells a $10,000 option on its vehicles, “full self-driving capability,” that experts have long said oversells the technology’s abilities and potentially creates safety issues. The vast majority of Tesla drivers cannot use the “full self-driving” feature, but Tesla says it includes all the necessary hardware for the technology. The company says that the software necessary for the feature will come at a later date for most Tesla drivers.
Most autonomous vehicle experts say that “full self-driving” means a car that a person could safely fall asleep in behind the wheel, no different from what Waymo calls a fully autonomous vehicle.
Tesla released an early, prototype version of what it calls “full self-driving” features in October 2020 to a small group of Tesla owners. Videos posted by the testers suggest that there’s much work to be done before attentive human drivers aren’t needed behind the wheel. Tesla has warned the drivers to pay extra attention to the road, and keep their hands on the wheel.
But while it continues to call the feature “full self-driving,” and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made grandiose claims about its abilities and potential. Musk said that Tesla would have self-driving robotaxis operating in 2020, which did not happen. Musk has called Waymo a “highly specialized solution,” and said that Tesla offers a general solution. He did not offer specifics on the distinction.
Waymo was asked on Twitter in November 2020, “Would you say that your technology is orders of magnitude more advanced than the more vocal competitor with a misleading branding?”
“Yes,” responded Waymo, which operates a fully autonomous ridehail service in a limited part of Phoenix, Arizona. Human drivers aren’t needed behind the wheel of its minivans.
Musk’s technology isn’t of the same caliber, but he said recently that Tesla’s “full self-driving” will “work at a safety level well above that of the average driver this year.”
Musk and Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding how they planned to prove that “full self-driving” was safer than a human. Experts have long struggled with how to evaluate the safety of autonomous vehicles.
The disagreement over how to define “self-driving” is complicated by the fact that government bodies have not standardized a definition for “self-driving” vehicles. The US Department of Transportation and the Society of Automotive Engineers refer to a five-point scale of automation. The self-driving industry generally refers to “level 4” as the point on the scale where self-driving begins. At level 4, a car can drive itself in a defined area, like a specific city, without human intervention.
Waymo launched a public education campaign in 2017 about self-driving vehicles, called “Let’s Talk Self Driving.” The program will now be called “Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving.”