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‘Driverless’ cars: a law unto themselves?

Self-driving cars may be on their way in, but do we really want to call them ‘autonomous’?

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U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, gets into a self-driven car in Cranberry, Pa., Butler County,

Keith Srakocic/AP

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I’ve been taking the buzz about “driverless cars” more seriously since I started noticing articles on how they will save people money on their car insurance.

I would have thought the issue would be insurers refusing to write any policies at all for these vehicles. But look at this, from MarketWatch: “Three insurance suppliers and an auto parts maker have warned in their most recent annual reports that driverless cars and the technology behind them could one day disrupt the way they do business.”

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Forget the nightmare scenarios about bots hijacking your vehicle with you in it, or hackers jump-starting your car to crash it into the Lexus parked nearby. 

As these insurers see it, with fewer human mistakes made on the road, insurers will have to reduce their premiums. And fewer collisions will have an impact – I couldn’t resist – on the market for replacement auto parts.

Excuse me while I reach for a handkerchief.

Actually, what I’m interested in here is figuring out what’s the best word for these things. We could have called them automobiles. But that word is already taken.

A 19th-century coinage, it welded together a Greek word meaning “self” and a Latin word meaning, well, “mobile,” able to move. Automobile expressed the idea of something moving under its own power. It was initially used (the Oxford English Dictionary has an example from 1876) to refer to trams and other rail vehicles that had their own engine and didn’t need a locomotive.

By 1895, though, automobile meant essentially what it does today – a road vehicle with its own engine, typically of the internal combustion type, and room for a driver and several passengers.

It was a time of change in the field of transport. The OED cites this from H.G. Wells’s autobiography: “The bicycle was the swiftest thing upon the roads in those days, there were as yet no automobiles.”

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Automobile lives on in formal contexts, but, as the OED forthrightly notes, car is now “the usual word in informal and spoken English.”

The auto, or “self,” aspect of the first automobiles referred to their engines. In the case of the self-driving car, “self” refers to steering – by the car itself.

“Self-driving car” is Google’s term for its big project, now being beta-tested in a number of states. “Driverless car” is also widely used, but I can see why the company chooses to refer to these things in terms of who is in control rather than of what’s missing.

The generic term that seems to be used in the technical journals is autonomous car, but that sounds rather ominous, and not just because of the near-rhyme. At the back end of autonomy is a Greek word meaning essentially “law.” To have autonomy is to be a law unto oneself, quite literally. Is that something people want for their cars – or themselves? After all, don’t people drive to be in the driver’s seat?