Self-driving, autonomous or something else? How to define the Ubers that drive

It’s pop quiz time.

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Until last week, Pittsburgh was the only place where Uber users could ride in them.

There’s no way to specifically request a ride in one, and Uber hasn’t publicized a lot of details about how many riders have taken trips over the past few months or where they’ve gone.

You can probably visualize what we’re describing, but giving a name to these vehicles isn’t as simple. Even PennDOT officials acknowledged last week that the terms are evolving as fast as the technology.

You know what that means: It’s time for a pop quiz. (It’s multiple choice and just one question, we promise.)

Q: What type of Uber vehicles are pictured below?

Uber's fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions from 2016
Jared Wickerham/Wick Photography

A. Self-driving
B. Autonomous
C. Highly Automated Vehicle or HAV
D. Driverless

Read on to see how right you are.

If you picked A. Self-driving

You picked the term favored by Uber and the internet, so that’s pretty good, right?

When Uber announced its pilot program allowing Pittsburghers to ride in the cars, it used self-driving: “Today, we’re excited to announce that the world’s first Self-Driving Ubers are now on the road in the Steel City.”

During a media preview in Pittsburgh before the announcement, self-driving was also the adjective of choice for Uber officials including Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology; Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber’s Advanced Technology Center; and Emily Bartel, product manager at the center.

Also, in an unofficial Google search by The Incline on Friday, self-driving (with or without the hyphen) returned the most results of the four terms when paired with “Pittsburgh” and “Uber.”

Uber also used self-driving again last week in announcing its San Francisco pilot. 

If you picked B. Autonomous

You wouldn’t (for the most part) be on the same page as Uber or Commonwealth officials, but you match “popular culture” and California.

In the announcement of the San Francisco pilot, Uber argued that it didn’t need a testing permit. 

The “rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them. For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them,” Levandowski wrote.

Those California rules are for autonomous vehicles testing. The California DMV says the Uber vehicles are autonomous and the company needs the permit, Business Insider reported.

Back in Pennsylvania, Jason Sharp, executive deputy chief counsel for PennDOT, said in an online forum last week that the state’s Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force worked on establishing a glossary of terms.

He said autonomous vehicles operate independently, which the cars being tested in the state don’t do. However, Sharp did note that “popular culture has seemed to glom on to autonomous versus automated.” Clearly — the state group is named the Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force.

If you picked C. Highly Automated Vehicle or HAV

You have the Pennsylvania task force that spent about six months discussing policies for testing the cars on your side — for now.

In task force discussions, Sharp said it was clear that the cars are automated.

“Both industry and, really, all of our partners said automated really is the more precise term,” he said.

According to the task force recommendations, an HAV is “a motor vehicle or a mass transit vehicle with full or high automation that is equipped with an automated driving system.” The report also notes the difference between “full automation” and “high automation.”

Full automation means the automated driving system in the vehicle performs all aspects of driving that would be managed by a human driver. If the vehicle is only “highly” automated, a human driver can request to intervene if needed; if a human doesn’t, the vehicle’s actions would “achieve minimal risk.”

These definitions are part of what PennDOT is calling a “living document,” and the department is planning for more revisions.

If you picked D. Driverless

You picked the term with the most debate between current laws, policy recommendations and industry leaders.

Current Pennsylvania law defines driver as “a person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle.” But the glossary in the task force recommendations adds the word “natural” to the definition: “a natural person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle.” 

In a section of comments, two industry task force members — Jeffrey Perry, public policy director for General Motors, and Shari Shapiro, Uber head of public affairs for Pennsylvania and Delaware — as well as Wayne Weikel from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers took issue with the glossary definition.

Shapiro pointed out that the definition doesn’t match state law, while all three said it was inconsistent with the rest of the recommendations.

That’s because, in a section after the glossary of terms, the report stated that in order for the cars to be truly driverless, the definition of driver needs to be expanded for testing.

“During HAV testing, where an operator is either present in the vehicle or tasked with remote operation or oversight of the vehicle, there are two potential drivers — the operator and the ADS (automated driving system aka the hardware and software that drive the vehicle),” according to the recommendations.

Current state law requires a licensed driver to be in the driver’s seat of these vehicles when tested.

“Although there is no requirement that they be touching the steering wheel,” Kurt Myers, PennDOT deputy secretary and co-chair of the task force, said during the forum.

Want to weigh in on testing these vehicles in the state?

PennDOT is accepting public comment on the policy until Jan. 12. You can email comments to [email protected] 

Making the suggested policies permanent depends on legislation from state lawmakers in 2017, according to PennDOT.

Read the recommendations here: