• Automated Driving
  • Mobility Services
  • Transportation Efficiencies

Regulators Are Finally Starting to Tackle Autonowashing

Sam Abuelsamid
Jul 24, 2020

Guidehouse Insights

Chances are you have never heard the term autonowashing. Chances are equally good you have experienced it. The idea is that companies, mainly automakers and suppliers, are using the hype around automated driving to create the perception that their products are more advanced and high tech than they actually are. Regulators are finally starting to crack down on the practice.

What Is Autonowashing?

The term is a play on greenwashing, a phenomenon in the late-2000s where companies would announce projects or products intended to apply the veneer of environmentalism without having much real impact. Many companies have since moved on to making real changes that have a significant impact on their environmental footprint. 

However, autonowashing is still very much in vogue, and it is dangerous. Germany-based, American human-machine interaction researcher Liza Dixon coined the term and defined it:

verb. The practice of making unverified or misleading claims which misrepresent the appropriate level of human supervision required by a partially or semi-autonomous product, service or technology.

Autopilot Doesn’t Mean Autonomous

Tesla has probably been the most egregious practitioner of autonowashing by selling a driver-assist product called Autopilot, implying to average consumers that the vehicle can drive itself. Tesla also offers a Full Self-Driving package currently priced at $8,000 that it claims will eventually make vehicles fully automated with just software updates. CEO Elon Musk has regularly demonstrated Autopilot with his hands off the steering wheel even though the owner's manual explicitly states that drivers must remain alert with hands on the wheel. 

Tesla Is Not Alone

However, Musk is not alone in autonowashing. Former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn regularly used the terms autonomous and autonomy when discussing the automaker’s ProPILOT system. During the recent announcement of the new EV, ARIYA, Nissan’s new COO Ashwani Gupta continued to use autonomy in the context of the upgraded ProPILOT 2.0. Although ProPILOT 2.0 allows for hands-free operation, it features an infrared driver monitor camera to ensure that the driver continues to watch the road and is ready to take control. This monitor camera makes the ProPILOT 2.0 technology assistive rather than autonomous. To their credit, Nissan’s American marketing team explicitly calls the system ProPILOT Assist and makes clear that the technology is assistive.

Nonetheless, the hype around automated driving has convinced many drivers and the media that these EVs are autonomous, leading to countless misleading headlines. An unfortunate number of drivers are misusing the technology and some have been involved in fatal accidents. 

The Tide Is Turning

Fortunately, the tide is slowly turning against autonowashing. Responsible automakers are taking more care in branding their products to avoid creating the impression that products offer more capability than they actually have. Recently, the Associated Press updated its style book, which is used by journalists around the world, to clarify the usage of terms related to driving assist and automation. 

In July 2020, a German court ruled that Tesla can no longer use Autopilot or Full Self-Driving in its marketing materials, and a UK court is considering a similar case. Hopefully, these cases are just the beginning of a wave of decisions that will lead to all manufacturers taking more care in branding and promoting their products. 

Branding and marketing are all about creating a product image that entices consumers to spend money. However, when the use of that product has life-and-death safety implications, marketers have a responsibility to show a higher level of care. It’s time to eradicate autonowashing.