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Automated vs. Autonomous Vehicles: Is There a Difference?

Autonomous vehicles and automated vehicles may sound like the same thing, but there’s a difference. Sure, we’ve reached a point in tweeting, texting and all the other assorted forms of shorthand communication where ideas are conveyed in the most general of terms, trusting the receiver will appropriately interpret them. It’s the difference between what’s factually or linguistically true and what’s culturally true.

The meanings of many words change over time. If you were to tell someone they won 10 million dollars playing the state lottery, they might yell “SHUT UP!” but they don’t really mean stop talking. Chances are, they want to hear more about that 10 million dollars. This trend is likely to continue even when it comes to on-demand transportation and the world of automated or autonomous cars.

In this new era of the automobile, “autonomous” and “automated,” as well as “self-driving” and “driverless,” are pairs of terms often used interchangeably. Culturally, they mean the same thing to most people, and that’s OK, but there are slight differences in meaning.

But these subtle, literal meanings are already blurring, and the meanings will become less and less important as time goes by. Despite actual differences in meaning, David Levinson, transportation analyst and professor at the University of Minnesota puts it this way in his Transportist blog:

“…I do not believe these differences can be preserved linguistically, even within the profession; the broad misuse and confusion will drown small differences of meaning.”

Self-Driving vs. Driverless

That being said, there are differences in the meaning of “self-driving” and “driverless.” “Self-driving car” is a term Autotrader uses to encompass the entire idea of cars doing some or all the work of moving a car from point to point. It is a more general and inclusive term. All driverless cars are self-driving; all self-driving cars aren’t driverless.

Today, for example, Nissan’s ProPilot system in the 2018 Rogue and Leaf can keep pace with stop-and-go traffic and, in very specific conditions, even steer itself. But, a human must be in the driver’s seat, hands on the steering wheel. By Autotrader’s definition of self-driving, the term applies to ProPilot, even though the car is intentionally limited from completely driving itself.

Driverless cars are those the government has defined as Level-5 cars. This is the top level in the SAE automated scale. Not only can a driverless car fully monitor what is happening around it and react safely, but it can do so without a human in the driver’s seat. In fact, such cars in the future may well not even have steering wheels and pedals. Waymo and others already have such vehicles operating on closed courses.

Sometimes, it’s the name of a technology that can add to the confusion. Nissan refers to its system as “ProPILOT Assist.” We’re not sure what the capitalization means, but the words are clear enough — it’s an “Assist.” Dave Sullivan, an automotive analyst with AutoPacific says:

“I think it’s unfortunate that Tesla has called their driver-assistance suite Autopilot, giving it the perception that you can just sit back and let the car do the thinking.” You can’t.

Autonomous vs. Automated

Truth is, there really is no such thing as an autonomous car, because the word “autonomy” implies decision-making. It has become a catchall for anything related to a car that can do some or all of the driving by itself.

Wikipedia defines an autonomous car like this:

“An autonomous car (also known as a driverless car, self-driving car, robotic car) and unmanned ground vehicle is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.”

We spoke to a Nissan engineer who said: “A truly autonomous car would be one where you request it to take you to work and it decides to go to the beach instead.”

Levinson says it more plainly: “A truly autonomous car would decide on destination and route as well as control within the lanes. An automated car would follow orders about destination and route, and may only adopt some lane-keeping or car-following guidance.”

So there’s the literal meaning of autonomous, even though culturally it has come to mean a car that can drive itself even if it has no will of its own. Today, nearly every car that can navigate lanes or traffic or mind speed limits is technically an “automated” car, not an “autonomous” car.

A vehicle with autonomous technology is automated; but unless it is driverless, it’s not really autonomous — and even then, if you picked the route, isn’t that more automated? Autonomous and automated clearly do not mean the same thing, but because autonomous is being applied to such a broad range of automation, the meanings are fuzzy at best. Semiautonomous is closer to reality, because some systems can make decisions with the driver’s permission — forward-collision and automatic braking are good examples.

The Bottom Line

Although factually different, the terms automated and autonomous will continue to mean the same thing culturally. Semiautonomous, autonomous, automated and self-driving basically mean the same thing, even though the literal idea of a truly autonomous car is somewhat far-fetched. Confusing terminology aside, we will continue to bring consumers the most up-to-date information on this topic as technology continues to progress.

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