Driverless cars, autonomous vehicles, self-driving trucks: The names we use for AI-powered transport are, while descriptive, quite a mouthful. As with any widely accepted new technology, these names will go the way of "iron horse" "motor car" and "mobile phone." 

Given visions of a future with trucker unemployment in the millions, ghost taxis prowling the streets and your normal car interior resembling an office, it is unlikely that the seven syllables of "autonomous vehicle" won't give way. We need a nimbler alternative that rolls off the tongue as if... autonomously. 

Dictionary.com wrote about how the way we name technology reflects our attitudes. While true, their own, rather racy, attempts at christening the autonomous car seem unlikely - including such concoctions as "AnticipaTaxi" and "Idler's Usher." Sorry, folks, but I don't think so. 

What, then, are the options? 

It's 2040. A six-year-old hops into a car's driver's seat and says: "Close the doors, car." Nothing happens. She slams the dashboard. "Switch on, car!" she yells and looks at her father puzzledly, "Dad, why isn't this car doing anything?" The father smiles. "It's from the 2020s. It's what you'd call a dumb car."

As the story indicates, one possibility is to forgo renaming autonomous cars in the first place. If we look at our past naming efforts, VR vehicles might just become plain old "cars," manually driven cars left in need of another description, a retronym. Retronyms are invented for anything old whose name has been appropriated by new but similar technology. 

When mobile phones and smartphones became simply "phones," there emerged a need to differentiate them from their predecessors by coming up with "landline," "fixed-line telephone," and "dumb phone." Similar processes have brought about "acoustic guitar," "old-school hip hop," "silent movie," and "British English" among many others. (Check out Wikipedia's list of retronyms in the English language.)

Possible retronyms for the old-school car could include:
dumb car, steered car, hand-steered car, manually steered car, human-steered car, etc.

Another plausible way to go would be to leave "car" for the old-school and repurpose the chiefly American "auto" as a noun to refer to autonomous vehicles. Originally short for "automobile", meaning self-moving as opposed horse-drawn, this clipping would be a convenient, and etymologically respectable, solution:

"Hey dear, are you taking the car or the auto tomorrow?"
"You take the damn auto. It's great we're not paying for juice, but I've gotta say it freaks me out that Google calculates my route to pass by and slow down before its affiliated businesses."

One problem for the retronym solution is the lack of a corresponding verb. For a bike, we have "to bike," for feet "to walk," and for dumb cars "to drive." But what would you call moving by a driverless car. Even apart from the need to differentiate between being a passenger and grasping the controls when the computer crashes, it would be odd and unintuitive to say that you're driving a driverless car. Of course, one could use "to car" and, in the other case, "to auto."

"I was carring down the New Jersey Turnpike, reading the morning paper, when the computer started bleeping and blinking, ushering me to grab the wheel and drive."

"My wife autoes to work every day, but I prefer the dumb car."

A third possibility would be for some snazzily-named company to gain enough of an upper hand on the market to become the generalized term for all autonomous cars. Winky wink, Weimo & co.

What do you think would be the solution you'd like to see used?


 

 

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