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Are You Guilty of 'Autonowashing?'

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Nov. 25, 2020—In 2016, luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz dropped its “self-driving car” advertising campaign after it was cited by multiple organizations for “misleading the public.” Mercedes-Benz is not alone in its misleading lingo as other automakers are advertising vehicles as being more autonomous than they actually are, creating a false sense of security for drivers.  

During the most recent webinar hosted by Partners for Automated Education, PhD Candidate studying human-machine interaction in automated driving, Liza Dixon, discusses the false sense of security and dangerous precedent it sets for drivers of advanced vehicles who may not be fully informed. 

Dixon coined the term “autonowashing” to refer to this phenomena, which she says “is making something appear to be more autonomous than it really is.”  

The Naming Game

Dixon says when a car advertisement uses language like “self-driving” or “driverless,” you should be suspicious. She says advertisements that overstate what a vehicle can do, often overshadow, or omit completely, the amount of human supervision that is required to operate the system effectively and efficiently. 

Dixon says a large portion of public education comes from mainstream media, much of which is produced by the automakers themselves in the form of advertisements. Advertisements are intended to hit the high points of a product, but Dixon says the lack of well-rounded information leads to drivers over-trusting the system. 

AAA conducted a study earlier this year to prove just how persuasive the naming conventions of autonomous systems can be. 


AutonoDrive vs. DriveAssist

AAA enlisted 90 research participants to test drive vehicles with identical driving assistance systems in order to gauge the driver’s level of acceptance and comfort with the vehicle—but there was a catch. 

Half of the participants were told their vehicle was outfitted with “AutonoDrive,” and received training that emphasized the system’s capabilities and convenience. The other half of the participants were told their vehicle featured “DriveAssist,” and their training focused on the system’s limitations and driver responsibility. 

Although each of the participants navigated the exact same driver-assistance features, the results of the study showed that those who used “AutonoDrive” felt overwhelmingly more comfortable to engage in “risky” behaviors behind the wheel, than their “DriveAssist” counterparts. 

When asked if they would feel comfortable using their cell phones behind the wheel, 45 percent of “AutonoDrive” subjects responded “yes,” compared to only 13 percent of “DriveAssist” respondents. 

When asked if they trusted their vehicle to take action to avoid a collision, 42 percent of those with “AutonoDrive” agreed, while only 4 percent of drivers with “DriveAssist” agreed. 


How do we avoid autonowashing?

Dixon says that autonowashing happens on a spectrum, and as a result, the best defense against it is education. 

“The main issue is the generally low level of public knowledge about this technology,” she says. “Drivers are not empowered enough to even know which questions to ask when they buy a car [with autonomous features].” 

She says it is up to the car manufacturers, organizations like PAVE, and the media to accurately and holistically describe the benefits and limitations of these systems. But engineering also plays a role in the solution, she says. 

Warnings and disclaimers are paramount for drivers of partially-autonomous systems, she says, but even those can only go so far. In-vehicle monitoring of the driver is one of the safest ways to avoid the over-trusting of these systems, Dixon says. 

Driver Monitoring Systems such as head and eye-trackers serve to ensure the driver is alert, while also making them aware of the real-time limitations of their vehicle. Dixon says these systems can even be designed to shut off after a driver has been issued excessive warnings. 

While there is no sweeping solution for this problem, Dixon says, “The more descriptive people can be about the systems, specifically their limitations, the better off and safer we’ll be.” 

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