An Honest Glossary of Terms Relating to Self-Driving, Mobility, Tesla, and More

Love Elon Musk or hate him, he’s right about the proliferation of fake news, both in general and as it pertains to self-driving technology. One necessary step in fixing the problem is coming to a consensus regarding the terminology we all use around subjects like self-driving, autonomy, and mobility. As there is no definitive public resource for this, I assembled a rough but honest guide to the terms you should know.


  • Next-generation high-speed cellular networks. 5G is not necessary for truly autonomous self-driving car—i.e. not reliant on external infrastructure and capable of functioning in any and all conditions—but absolutely essential for the profitable monetization of passengers in a self-driving car.
  • The foundational element of Black Mirror-inspired startups like Vugo, that seek to offer video content in shared autonomous vehicles by converting them into a dystopian hell.

Hell, thy name is connectivity.

I’ll take self-driving cars, but you can keep your connectivity.

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)

  • A broad term covering partially-automated automotive technologies, including radar cruise control, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, and lane keeping.
  • A marketing term for minimum viable automation, or whatever carmakers can rush to market so as to not to be appear to be behind perceived safety leaders like Volvo.
  • Technologies which may or may not have anything to do with safety, but are often lumped in with safety technologies, like anti-lock brakes.
  • Level 2 systems that suck. (See below: SAE & SAE Automation Levels)

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

  • A vague and essentially worthless term covering any decision-making by machine.
  • How self-driving cars will function in the future.
  • How to raise VC money (2007-present) assuming you’ve got a guy with a Hungarian last name attached to your business plan.
  • The temporary—and illusory—state of human cognition while at Burning Man.
  • Steven Spielberg’s 6th worst film after Ready Player One, The BFG, Hook, War Horse and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, except for the last two minutes when they find Haley Joel Osment frozen in the ice, which is awesome.


  • Any repetitive task performed by a machine.
  • What is happening to journalism as original reporting is replaced by reposting with bare-minimum commentary/reframing.


  • Independence and/or freedom of action.
  • Any form of automation with exaggerated capabilities.

Autonomous Car/Vehicle

  • Vehicles that don’t exist yet, and won’t for a long time. (See Geotonomous Car/Vehicle)


  • A system used to control the trajectory of an aircraft without constant “hands-on” control by a human operator.
  • The brand name for Tesla’s ADAS suite.
  • How you market ADAS to people who don’t have pilot’s licenses, and who don’t ask why planes still have pilots.
  • The term used by people who don’t understand what Tesla Autopilot does, or how it works, to describe any hands-off driving technology.

Autopilot Buddy

  • An aftermarket Tesla Autopilot “Nag Reduction Device” designed for those who think they know better than Tesla’s engineers, and who don’t want to commit suicide alone.
  • A Tesla-owning friend who insists on demonstrating Autopilot even when you ask them not to.

Big Data

  • Critical phrase for any business plan from 2016 on (if data is new the oil, then more must be better, right?).

Car Sharing

  • How to make friends (1905-2015).
  • How to raise VC money (2010-2016).
  • How not to raise VC money (2017 forward).


  • What self-driving car companies need in order to sell passengers content, goods and services, without which the $80 billion spent so far on R&D cannot be recouped.
  • What self-driving developers need to deploy cars incapable of operating independently. (Se: 5G)

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

  • An electronic circuit that performs programming instructions.
  • What Intel claims is the best processing solution for self-driving cars. (See: Graphics Processing Unit)

Deep Learning

  • When AI gets more “intelligent” by moving past simple rules-based logic.
  • How to raise VC money (2016-present).
  • What many investors in Tesla, self-driving, and mobility will learn the hard way.


  • What you want to be doing to the other guy.
  • What you you claim to be doing even when it’s being done to you.
  • A red flag when included on any CV or social media bio.

Driver Monitoring System (DMS)

  • A system to monitor a driver’s state of engagement, meant to ensure said driver’s ability to maintain and/or take over control of a vehicle, comprised of sensors monitoring biometrics, hand and/or head and/or eye position.
  • Something Tesla should have included before deploying Autopilot.
  • Something Cadillac doesn’t get enough credit for deploying in SuperCruise.
  • What every car should have, if anyone cared about real safety.


  • The world’s finest website for learning about the glorious and inevitable future of electric vehicles, especially Tesla.
  • An incredibly biased website devoted to reprinting barely disguised press releases, seemingly on behalf of Tesla.
  • A site that would fail any objectivity test, run by cynics who have blocked almost every credible automotive journalist from following them on Twitter.
  • A site you should never, ever read, unless you are researching a paper on the annihilation of journalistic ethics.

Electric Vehicle (EV)

  • A vehicle powered only by electricity.
  • Vehicles that sucked until the arrival of the Tesla Model S.

Electrified Vehicles

  • What companies lacking an EV in their lineup call their hybrids.
  • A cynical marketing deflection by companies rushing to catch up to Tesla and GM.

Fleet Learning

  • See: “Is Tesla the New Morgan?”

Full Self-Driving

  • A meaningless term used by Tesla in an apparent effort to avoid classification of a future self-driving system within the SAE Automation Levels (see below).
  • Something that better arrive before the first Tesla customers who paid $3,000 for it see their leases expire, at which point there’s going to be another class action lawsuit.

Geotonomous Car/Vehicle

  • An automated vehicle capable of functioning without human input within a clearly defined geographic area.
  • A term I came up with in this brilliant article.

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

  • A specialized electronic circuit designed to accelerate image and graphics processing.
  • What NVidia claims is the best processing solution for self-driving cars. (See: Central Processing Unit).

Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)

  • What propels almost every car and bus on the planet.
  • What will go away, if you believe Elon Musk.
  • What will never go away, if you don’t.

Level 0

  • A horse.

Level 1

  • Any car in which a crash is always a driver’s fault.

Level 2

  • Any car in which the driver can pretend a crash wasn’t his fault.

Level 3

  • What carmakers call half-backed self-driving functionality, which their marketers want to release despite objections by the lawyers.

Level 4

  • What Waymo is doing, and what everyone else wishes they were. 

Level 5

  • BS, at least for the foreseeable future.

LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)

  • A laser used to detect objects and terrain features.
  • What Elon Musk says you don’t need to deploy “full self-driving” Teslas.
  • What almost everyone else on the planet thinks you DO need to deploy self-driving cars.


  • The best, fastest version of any Tesla.
  • The idea that flying cars are coming. Soon, if ever.
  • The auto industry’s efforts to bring a “Tesla-killer” to market (so far).
  • How cool the Porsche Mission-E looks.
  • How much positive media coverage Tesla has gotten.
  • Elon Musk’s suggestion that “the media” has victimized him.


  • The ability to move, possessed by most living things since the dawn of time.
  • How to raise VC money (2015-present).

Mobility-as-a-Service (Maas)

  • The aggregation of two or more adjacent modes of transportation (i.e. bicycle/train, train/plane) via a single point of payment.
  • The “Multi-Pass” used by Leeloo Dallas in the The Fifth Element.

Model Y

  • Tesla’s upcoming crossover.
  • What Tesla should have called the X.

Over-The-Air Updates (OTA)

  • A method of wirelessly updating vehicular software, commercially popularized by Tesla.
  • The shame of the rest of the auto industry, still shackled to dealerships who will do anything to stifle innovation and prevent OTA.


  • The coordinated operation of multiple self-driving vehicles in a convoy, meant to increase road capacity and efficiency.
  • When two or more companies duplicate the business model of a first-mover and hope for the best.
  • A word you add to your business plan if trucks are even tangentially involved.
  • Watching two Oliver Stone movies back-to-back on TBS because your Netflix account expired.

Range Anxiety

  • The fear or worry experienced by the rider of a horse (or other animal) who may be unable to reach a desired destination due to lack of food, water and/or rest. Solved via ridesharing (i.e. Pony Express) and the advent of the motorcar.
  • The fear or worry experienced by the driver of an ICE vehicle who may be unable to reach a desired destination due to lack of fueling infrastructure. Solved via a nationwide network of gas stations.
  • The fear or worry experienced by the driver of an EV who may be unable to reach a desired destination due to lack of charging infrastructure.
  • Something Tesla has solved near most major cities/highways in Western Europe and USA.
  • Something that no longer makes sense in new Teslas, which have ranges equal to the average American family sedan of decades past.

Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)

  • A well-intentioned professional association and standards developing organization whose principal emphasis is on transport industries such as automotive, aerospace, and commercial vehicles.
  • An organization that invites me back to speak every year, despite internal opposition to my relentless attacks on the SAE Levels of Automation.

SAE Levels of Automation

  • The conceptually vague taxonomy which places automation and human-input in a zero-sum relationship, in a failed attempt to classify automated vehicles that utterly ignores precedent in commercial aviation.
  • A system of thought that omits safety technologies that don’t fit and restricts out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Something that should be ignored except to criticize companies who attempt to associate their products with it.


  • An almost meaningless term describing perceived absence of danger.
  • A term frequently exploited by self-driving developers to conceal uncertainty over the actual value proposition of autonomous vehicles.
  • A term frequently exploited by self-driving developers to conceal uncertainty over the safety of their vehicles.
  • Something most people don’t actually care about, even if they say they do.
  • Something a lot of people began talking about as soon as it become profitable, or potentially profitable.


  • A term so diluted that it’s essentially worthless. 

Solar City

  • What Dubai should be, but isn’t.
  • Elon Musk’s other company, now merged with Tesla, which no one enjoys talking about.


  • How smart car manufacturers will pull a Hail Mary and annihilate car dealerships as we know them.
  • The coolest thing about Cadillac, and the least well-known. (See my op-ed.)


  • Remote control for cars and trucks.
  • An interim solution to driverless cars/trucks, in the absence of actual self-driving technologies.
  • Something that may be more profitable than self-driving, especially the longer it takes for self-driving to arrive.

Tesla Supercharger

  • The only EV charging network that’s any good. For now.
  • The most valuable or worthless part of Tesla’s portfolio, depending whom you ask.
  • A great place to go cruising to meet like-minded individuals. But only if you own a Tesla.

Transition Warning Systems

  • The big missing piece to partial automation of cars, short of geotonomy.
  • What Cadillac has done fairly well, and Tesla seems to have ignored.
  • Why Level 3 will never be deployed until this is solved.

I could go on, but this seems like a good start. Corrections? Omissions? Please share in the comments.

Alex Roy is founder of the Human Driving Association, editor-at-large at The Drive, host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports, and author of The Driver. He has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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