What Should We Call Self-Driving Cars?

“Driverless,” “autonomous,” or something else altogether?

Video captured by a Google self-driving car, featured during a presentation in September 2015. (Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters)

I’ve been writing about humanless carriages a lot recently. Okay, I know, “humanless carriages” is not an actual thing that people say. There are instead “driverless cars,” and “self-driving vehicles.” But even those terms suggest that we have come to that bizarre moment when a new technology is on the cusp of taking off, but the terms used to describe it aren’t normalized yet.

If driverless cars do eventually take over the roads, what will it do to the way we talk about driving? For one thing, we’ll probably end up redefining the word “driver.”

“A driver could come to mean the machine that drives just as a computer is a machine that computes,” Alexis Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic in 2014. After all, computers used to refer to people. Madrigal suggested using the term “driver” to mean a “driverless car,” and there’s something appealing, if a little fancy-schmancy, about its simplicity. Imagine these words coming out of your mouth: My commute is so much better when I take a driver, or They’re replacing the city bus fleet with drivers, or Want to share a driver?

It’s certainly less clunky than “autonomous,” or “self-driving,” and more precise than “driverless.” But early terminology can be hard to shake. And naming new technologies is weirdly hard.

More than a century ago, there was a long debate over what motorcars should be called. “Automobile is a dreadful word,” The New York Times said in 1897, “and the French ought to be ashamed of it.” It’s funny now, as my colleague Cari Romm pointed out to me this morning, that automobile is already taken: It might otherwise be the perfect term for driverless cars. But when automobiles were new, the Times lamented that the term wasn’t more exacting: “[T]hey ought to invent a better name. A steamboat or a railway train is as ‘automobile’ as are the new road wagons.”

This was, apparently, a matter that got people riled up. There’s scorn practically dripping from this Times write-up, also published in 1897: “Efforts almost pathetically ineffectual are still making to find or create a satisfactory name for the very ugly but apparently useful carriages that in considerable and slowly increasing numbers are traversing without the aid of horses the streets of this and other cities.”

The goal was to find a term that was, the Times said, “at once significant, euphonious,  and short.” But all the suggestions—which the paper, regrettably, declined to list—were “clumsy monsters of etymological iniquity.” Instead, it came down to two popular terms: “horseless carriage” versus “automobile.”

“Of this wretched pair,” the Times groused, “it is hard to tell which is the more obnoxious. The one ... covers so much ground that it means practically nothing, while the other joins Latin and Greek in shameless intimacy.” Other publications held contests to find a pleasing term for “electrically propelled, self-contained vehicles for roads and streets.” Some people advocated for “electromobile,” but it never caught on. (A “truly dreadful” suggestion, the Times declared.)

Here in the future, we face a similar etymological conundrum. Eventually, driverless cars—if they’re popular enough—will probably just be called cars. Maybe a human-driven car will have to be called a “manual,” or, as my colleague Ed Yong suggests, a “meatmobile.” (“Years from now, when everyone is saying ‘meatmobile,’” he added, “I will be KING.”)

In the meantime, we’re stuck trying to differentiate between the technology we still use and the one that may replace it on a huge scale.

Asking around the newsroom, I was struck with my colleagues’ creativity, but also with how awkward it is to try to name something on purpose. Chances are, we aren’t going to end up calling self-driving cars any of these terms, suggested in varying degrees of jest: passenger boxes, personal streetcars, transportation baskets, automatrons, silent taxis, magic carpets with wheels, and headless horseless carriages.

For now, maybe it’s best to keep brainstorming.