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Autonowashing: What it is and why it matters

August 21, 2020

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Any new and potentially transformative technology is accompanied by tremendous excitement—and for good reason. Autonomous vehicles could potentially reduce the number of crashes caused by distracted and drunk driving or reshape transportation options for people with disabilities. However, sometimes the hype around new technology – and the language people use to describe it – obscures important nuances, such as the difference between partial, semi, and fully autonomous vehicles.

When the lines between different levels of autonomy are blurred, for example, in a marketing campaign, it’s called “autonowashing.”

Liza Dixon, usability engineer and researcher in the field of human-centered automation, explained “autonowashing,” a term she coined, during an episode of “Let’s Talk Self-Driving Live.” In that conversation, she stressed why understanding the different levels of autonomy matter.

Assistive is not autonomous

Not all self-driving technology is created equal. Advanced driver-assistance systems, for instance, are not autonomous, but assistive. Dixon described the distinction as “not only an advertising concern but a public safety issue.” When there’s confusion about a vehicle’s capabilities, she said, people often have an incorrect understanding of their role in operating the system correctly and safely.

“In the study of the way people interact with autonomous vehicles, we used the term ‘calibrated trust,’” Dixon explained. “This means just enough trust so that you’re going to actually use the system but not so much trust that you misuse the system and put yourself, other passengers, and other road users in a dangerous situation.”

SAE International, a group of automotive experts from around the world, developed a 5-level scale to help people distinguish between the different autonomous systems. This scale has also been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

Teaching consumers to think critically

Dixon said one way to avoid or minimize the effects of autonowashing is to educate consumers. 

 "I would really like everyone who reads an article, who reads a story, who hears something from a friend related to vehicle automation to be cautiously skeptical,” Dixon said.

People should ask themselves two simple questions when they read or hear something about the technology, she said. First, is a human required to monitor the system? Second, what are the limitations of the system; where and under what conditions can it not be used?

“This is going to take a lot of conscious, thoughtful, careful work to be sure that, in the end, the technology really does all that we want it to do.”

- Liza Dixon, Usability Engineer

 Overstating the benefits of semi-autonomous or partially autonomous technology actually creates a hurdle to the widespread success, Dixon observed.

“I think vehicle automation has a tremendous potential for good, however, I don’t think that all these wonderful ideas we have for enhanced safety, environmental benefits [are] guaranteed to come to fruition,” Dixon emphasized. “This is going to take a lot of conscious, thoughtful, careful work to be sure that, in the end, the technology really does all that we want it to do.”

Still, Dixon said she is quite optimistic about the technology. 

“My greatest hope for the future is that it's safer, more equal, and more compassionate.”