Autonomous Driving Isn’t What You Think It Is

What the hell does this all mean?

Self-Driving Cars
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When it comes to marketing autonomous driving, carmakers have a problem. Actually two problems. First, they need to convince us we need autonomous driving. Also, they need to explain to us exactly what these features actually do. Everyone knows ABS means Anti-Lock Braking, because all manufacturers use it as a generic term. Not so with autonomous driving features, and that’s a big problem. Because you can’t sell something you can’t explain.

Let’s take a look at what the average person sees by Googling three German manufacturers’ current, and upcoming, models. Oh, and Tesla. Tesla has led the way in simplifying autonomous driving nomenclature, but Mercedes, Audi and BMW are right behind them. Or so I thought.

No one has nailed this.

For the sake of humor and convenience, I’ve picked the industry leaders in autonomous driving tech. I’ve taken my best guess—using only their official statements—to group features appropriately. There are probably more, but if I can’t get this right after several hours of research, the average consumer has no freakin’ chance.

What the hell does it all mean? What is autonomous driving? What features—and how many of them—does one need before a car is autonomous? Or even semi-autonomous? How is the average consumer supposed to know the difference between all the names, what they do, and the overlapping and inconsistent nomenclature?

See if you can interpret this chart:

There’s a lot going on here. It appears BMW has more features than anyone, but is that true? Why the paucity of Tesla’s feature list? Is there any difference between the cruise control systems? Is “Distronic” a brand or a technology?

Let’s back up for a second. Customers aren’t going out looking for ConnectedDrive or Distronic or any other branded tech. The average car shopper might not know anything about individual features beyond “that parking thing” or “cruise control that keeps distance, you know?”

But they have almost certainly heard about the “autonomous driving thing” and want that. How does one describe that other than what it does? The average person probably can’t even do that, because they’re not versed in the universe of these rapidly developing technologies. The average car salesman can’t help either. Actually, he can help with the brand he’s selling, maybe, but certainly cannot help decipher what anyone else is selling.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

So, a man goes to the Mercedes dealer and gets a full pitch on Drive Pilot. He likes it, but wants to cross-shop a BMW. He asks the BMW dealer if the car has anything like Drive Pilot. The BMW dealer starts talk about Driving Assistant Plus and listing all the features. Will this customer actually get what he wants? Will they even know what they didn’t get? Read the press releases and reviews for yourself. Whose technology is the best? Who is in the lead? Are they all the same?

If you’re looking for a truly autonomous car, nothing in the above chart will help you. I’m all for safety features like Lane Control and Automatic Emergency Braking, but adding all the components of “autonomous driving” does not make your car autonomous, or even semi-autonomous. It makes it a modern car with automated safety features. Safety features are a good thing. An autonomous (or “self-driving”) car must be a car that will drive itself. Not in fits and starts—the entire job of driving, no one in the driver’s seat. Full stop.

No such car is available today. They exist. You just can’t buy one.

There are two cars on the road that actually drive themselves for more than a few minutes time without driver intervention: The Tesla Model S and Model X. (The next model that will do so is the 2017 Mercedes E-class, which very well might leapfrog Tesla in features.) When I set the semi-autonomous cannonball record in a Model S, the car drove itself 96 percent of the time. That’s 44 hours of autonomous driving, with as much as 40 minutes in between having to place one’s hands on the steering wheel.

Mercedes-Benz is also the only other manufacturer to announce lifting the hands-on-wheel requirement beyond 30-60 seconds, although it’s been vague about the time limit. No other manufacturer has made such a commitment, publicly.

Functionally, autonomous driving is a suite of features that already exist, each capable of operating independently, waiting for legal restrictions to be lifted such they can work in unison. autonomous driving is not like ABS; it’s not sufficiently defined enough to become a generic term.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Trouble is, “autonomous” is already being used as a generic term. In the race to bring autonomy to market, manufacturers are marketing not only the chicken before the egg, but the chick before the chicken. They’re not comfortable unleashing the full capabilities of tech they’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet market them as fully-baked to a public as-yet uneducated in what is here, and what is coming.

I’m all for autonomous driving. Commuting sucks. But if manufacturers want to sell us cars that will save us from drudgery, they need to do a better job not only of defining the features, but of marketing the suite. If nothing else, Tesla nailed one thing. Its suite is called Autopilot. Everyone knows what an Autopilot is. It flies the plane. Audi’s Piloted Driving? Sounds like you need a pilot. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Audi wants you to think, but they want you to buy it anyway.

Too bad you won’t find any of that in the brochure.