BSI self-driving definition

You like autonomous and we like self-driving, as US and UK push different descriptors.

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A divergence in self-driving terminology: has Tesla’s FSD wrecked general usage in America?

The issue of confusing terminology in the, er, self-driving / driverless / autonomous / automated vehicle industry, has raised its ugly head once again, with the US and UK apparently heading in opposite directions.

An article on the 2025AD website this week, titled “Autonomous driving: Do we need a common language to move forward?”, warned that “unclear terminology limits understanding”. 

The oft-quoted Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has recently updated its “Levels of Driving Automation”, revealing in itself, reflecting a shift towards “Automated” and away from “Autonomous” in some quarters.

SAE levels of driving automation 2022
SAE levels of driving automation 2022

Self-driving in the UK

Then there’s “self-driving”. In the UK, the Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and others have been keen to embrace it in place of “driverless”.

For example, in its “Government paves the way for self-driving vehicles on UK roads” statement in April, and the two mentions in the Queen’s Speech 2022 lobby pack.

You can see the logic. It isn’t generally good practice to brand something by what it’s not, so “self-driving” certainly has the advantage over “driverless” in that respect.

We’re talking headline descriptors here. Let’s not even get into acronyms… like the fact there’s one letter difference between Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and Automated Driving Systems (ADS) when confusing the two is so dangerous. Grrr.

Self-driving in Korea

Anyway, back to self-driving. We’re not alone in liking it. For example, this month saw the launch of the epically-named Self-driving Robot Alliance in Korea.

Park Jae-young, official for Korean industrial policy, said: “I hope that the Self-driving Robot Alliance will become a place to drive the growth of the domestic self-driving robot market.”

Argument over then, self-driving it is. Not if the largest economy in the world has anything to do with it!

Autonomous in America

Across the pond, Americans are falling out of love with the term “self-driving” and going back to “autonomous”.

TechCrunch reported last year that Waymo was dropping self-driving. Now, the lobbying group the Self-driving Coalition for Safer Streets (including big hitters like Cruise, Ford and Argo AI) has changed its name to the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) Industry Association.

You have to question Tesla’s part in all this. It’s a shame, given everything Elon Musk has done for electric cars, that so many hyperbolic headlines are caused by its confusingly-named Full Self-Driving (FSD) package.

It simply isn’t self-driving as the rest of the industry understands it, and it risks drivers misunderstanding what their cars are capable of.

As Forbes reported back in 2020, Tesla has already had to rebrand its Autopilot as Autodrive in Germany. Has its Full Self-Driving (FSD) brand wrecked the self-driving name for everyone else?

Define self-driving

Not in the UK apparently. British Standards group, BSi, with its famous kitemarks, recently updated its connected and automated vehicles (CAV) vocabulary, sponsored by the autonomous-leaning CCAV.

Thanks to lead technical author Nick Reed, of Reed Mobility, BSI Flex 1890 v4.0:2022-03 included some notable additions, not least for “self-driving”.

BSi's CAV vocabulary includes "self-driving"
BSi’s CAV vocabulary includes “self-driving”

Referencing other definitions in the document, BSi defined self-driving as: “Full function of the dynamic driving task (2.1.24), performed by the automated driving system (2.1.7) within its operational design domain (2.1.48)”.

By way of justification, the definition was accompanied by two notes: 1) Although this term is deprecated within SAE J3016 (2021), it is included here because this is the term best understood by the public to mean the definition as stated (which is the same as that for automated driving).

And 2): The Law Commission of England and Wales and Scottish Law Commission joint report (2022) extended this definition with the condition that the vehicle is to drive “safely and legally, even if an individual is not monitoring the driving environment, the vehicle or the way that it drives”.

Peter Stoker, Chief Engineer for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles at Millbrook, nutshelled the issue last year, telling us: “The key to the future of self-driving is education, education, education – for everyone, the public, vehicle manufacturers, the aftermarket… we have to work on the terminology – autonomous, driverless, CAV, CAM – it’s confusing, even to people who know what they’re talking about.”

With marketing teams in the US pushing “autonomous” and the UK and others pushing “self-driving”, the confusion looks set to continue.

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Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched in 2019.