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Why Standardized Language Matters To Automated Vehicles

Automated vehicle technology is one of the most complex topics imaginable, encompassing bleeding-edge developments in artificial intelligence, sensing, processing and countless other technologies. But on top of all the technical knowledge required to understand the increasing automation of vehicles, grasping their far-reaching transformative potential also requires insight into very different subjects: urban development, economics, law, and behavioral psychology to name just a few.

Though endlessly inspiring, the challenge of understanding automated vehicles and their limitless potential can also be a bit overwhelming. No one person could hope to bring together all the kinds of knowledge required to foresee the endless promise, or the potential pitfalls, of our autonomous future. Living up to the vast potential of this technology will require a broad society-wide conversation, which in turn requires a shared language with which to have that conversation.

Today we take a step toward that shared language by joining an effort to establish standard nomenclature for Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) technologies, pioneered by AAA, Consumer Reports, the National Safety Council, JD Power and SAE International. Their effort standardizes the terms for specific kinds of driver assistance systems, reducing confusion and empowering vital conversations about the technology among many of stakeholders.

Understanding and defining these lower levels of driving automation is not just an important step in fostering a broad social conversation about this technology, it also helps address real misunderstandings about technologies on the road today. PAVE’s recent poll found that 39% of respondents admit to being “confused by all the different names of advanced safety features” and, more troublingly, 19% believe that it is possible for them to own a “completely driverless vehicle today.”

This finding is supported by research from AAA that shows a staggering 40% of Americans believe that ADAS suites with the term “pilot” in their name are capable of true self-driving. Peer-reviewed research conducted by MIT’s AgeLab further confirms that the names of driver assistance systems can create unrealistic perceptions of a system’s capabilities, concluding that

“As many consumers own more than one vehicle, a greater degree of commonality of design and naming characteristics (e.g. ABS, ESC, etc.) in combination with increased driver education may be critical in the successful transformation of personal mobility from largely manual control through to higher levels of automation.”

This need for common nomenclature and education about lower levels of driving automation is not some academic curiosity, but is literally a matter of life and death. As a trio of leading human-automation interaction experts recently discussed in one of PAVE’s weekly panels, the human driver is a fundamental component of driver assistance systems and therefore their perceptions and beliefs around the capability of these systems can determine their safety. If a human driver believes a driver assistance system is more capable than it is, they can easily over-trust the system and fall victim to the innate human capacity for distraction and complacency.

As we’ve already seen from National Transportation Safety Board investigations of several crashes involving automated driving systems, human driver inattention while monitoring partial-automation systems can have fatal results. Since over-trust in those systems is known to contribute to inattention, and because nomenclature and language can contribute to over-trust, the words we use to describe these kinds of human-in-the-loop automation can be the difference between safe use of an important new technology and another life lost on the road.

Thus, standardising nomenclature around driver assistance systems is an important step in two of PAVE’s top educational priorities: dispelling potentially deadly confusion about the difference between driver assistance and true autonomous driving capability, and facilitating a broad social conversation about these transformative technologies. We thank and celebrate the organizations who took the lead in establishing this new standard, and we look forward to more opportunities to continue this vital work in establishing a common vocabulary for automated vehicle technology.



PAVE is a coalition of industry, nonprofit and academic institutions with one goal: To inform the public about automated vehicles and their potential. Safety. Mobility. Sustainability.

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PAVE is a coalition of industry, nonprofit and academic institutions with one goal: To inform the public about automated vehicles and their potential.