Tesla’s Autopilot Disaster Shows Consequences of Misleading Names in Tech | by Bennat Berger | Sep, 2021

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Bennat Berger

Back in April, the fatal crash of a Tesla in Texas demonstrated the dangerous nature of misleading names. The crash occurred when the vehicle proceeded around a curve in the road at high speeds with no one behind the wheel. With Tesla’s Autopilot feature engaged, neither of the two passengers were in the driver’s seat at the time of the incident, so they had no way of controlling the vehicle.

This tragic story has highlighted the potentially dangerous nature of inaccurate terms, which can lure customers into a false sense of security and lead to dangerous, yet easily preventable outcomes.

Take the term “autopilot,” for example. While the definition of the word may account for the current potential of autonomous tech, the fact remains that the term suggests independence that it has not yet achieved. “Autopilot” may not be synonymous with “autonomous,” but through advertisements, media presence, word connotations or associations, and other public influences, many consumers tend to have flawed beliefs about what this term actually means.

A recent study in Washington, D.C. delved into the phenomenon of misnomers and driver engagement. What researchers found was that the names of products, as well as the way in which certain features are explained, have a significant impact on how drivers use their vehicles.

In this study, participants used the same advanced driving system to operate a vehicle, but one group was told the system was called “AutonoDrive” while the other participants were told “DriveAssist.” Furthermore, participants in the AutonoDrive group learned about the various capabilities of the system while DriveAssist group members were informed about the system’s limitations as well as what their role in operating the vehicle would be.

In the end, members of the AutonoDrive group reported having exaggerated beliefs about the system’s capabilities including automated evasion measures for impending collisions and hands-free driving for driver activities like eating. A few members of the DriveAssist group shared these beliefs too, but the percentile differences between groups were stark, with over 40% in the AutonoDrive group believing in the vehicle’s ability to evade a crash and only 4% of DriveAssist group members believing the same.

If one thing is clear, it’s that accurate names and information distribution can make an immense difference in consumers’ safety and awareness, and failing to account for the inherent misconceptions that can occur from lofty, flashy names can result in tragedy.

In fact, the consequences of misnaming autonomous tech go beyond physical safety concerns; they can put customers’ security and privacy at risk, too.

“Smart” technology, for example, has become exceptionally common in everyday life. And while this buzzword appeals to consumers’ desire for automation and anthropomorphized technology, its ubiquitous usage can be misleading, impractical, and even overstated. The “smart” label suggests safety, privacy, intelligence, and automation, but there are few specific criteria for actually assigning the term to a product, meaning that consumers are likely to be misled.

By claiming the “smart” label, companies are able to draw on the history of success that smart products have had without the immediate need to elaborate on the technology they are using, the specific capabilities of their products, or who owns the technology being used. As a result, “smart” technology can be problematic for consumers who do not know the details of the products they purchase, as they may overestimate the products’ abilities or even risk jeopardizing their security through unregulated software or unclear service agreements.

The actual definition of smart technology varies depending on its application; a smart car, for instance, has vastly different capabilities than a smart home or smartphone might possess. Using the “smart” label tends to benefit companies looking to appeal to investors and consumers alike, but not all smart technology is created equal. Much of the time, the actual “smartness” of a product depends on the technology being used, the context in which it is being applied, and the user. In some cases, smart technology may not be the best option, either, but because the tech term has adopted the connotation of being more advanced than non-smart or even “dumb” products, consumers and investors rarely think to consider the alternative possibilities.

The rapid evolution of modern technology has provided an exceptional amount of convenience, efficiency, and optimization in nearly every industry as well as in everyday life. With the advent of technology comes the potential for misunderstandings, misnomers, and grave mistakes through misleading terminology.

While consumers ought to make an effort to think critically about the products they purchase, tech companies have a responsibility to choose suitable names for their products to prevent consumer harm. While Tesla is far from the only company to introduce or utilize terms that are not wholly accurate, when these misconceptions can cause accidents and fatalities, it’s clear that the matter of proper naming is not simply a benign branding exercise.

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