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Opinion

Driver Assistance Is to Escalators What Self-Driving Cars Are to Elevators

I hate to be a stickler, but people who use words incorrectly drive me nuts. I once called a pink flamingo a sturgeon, but I had an excuse. I was two. Now that my daughter is that age, I try to be as clear as possible, because I’m trying to set baby Coco up for success. For example, Coco loves escalators, but she calls them—

“Robo-stairs!” cries my divine baby angel, “I want to ride the…robo-stairs!”

“Yes, darling. Did you know that mommy and daddy also call them escalators?”

“Robo-stairs!”

“We will, honey. Do you know whyyyyy mommy and daddy call the robo-stairs escalators? Because they are stairs that escalate us. Escalate means to go up.”

“Robo-stairs!”

“Escalators.”

“Ro…bo…STAIRS!”

Clearly I have some work to do, but at least she was thinking smart. Technically she wasn’t wrong. Escalators are robotic stairs, in the sense that robo = automated. I still don’t know where she learned to shorten robot to the prefix robo, but I sure was proud.

But the best news was that she didn’t call escalators ‘elevators.’ If she had, I would have been very, very disappointed. Escalators and elevators have nothing in common, except that they both use automation to move us up and down. A two year old might confuse them, but among adults, only a fool would call an escalator an elevator, or call an elevator an escalator.

So why do adults keep calling cars with driver assistance ‘self-driving?’

The difference between driver assistance and self-driving is as razor sharp as the difference between escalators and elevators: one requires our attention the entire time, the other does not.

My personal car has great driver assistance technology. But I can tell you for a fact that it is not self-driving. I’ve got every driver assistance feature you can buy for it, but it’s still not self-driving, because I can’t sleep in it. Why not? Because if I want to get anywhere, I still have to drive it. Brake. Steer. Hands-on-wheel. It requires my attention 100% of the time. Zone out for too long, and a good day can instantly become a bad day.

Now consider escalators. Very convenient, but using them requires focus. Just ask Coco how much I had to teach her the first time. And the second time. And the third time. So she will remember what to do every time she gets on an escalator. First, you have to place one foot on a series of moving metal plates. Get it wrong and you’ll trip face forward onto those same plates. I’ve done it. Not pretty. Placing one hand on the railing is a wise move in case of an emergency stop. It’s also effective against others bumping into you as they push past. You might zone out for a second, but don’t wait too long, because if you’re not paying 100% attention when your feet reach the top of that escalator, a good day can instantly become a bad day.

But self-driving cars and elevators aren’t like that at all.

A state-of-the-art self-driving car or elevator lets you pick your destination or floor before you get in. Then you get in. Zone out, or don’t. Close your eyes, or don’t. Read. Text. Or just wait. Ding. You’ve arrived. The doors open. You get out. That’s it. If anything goes wrong, there’s a stop button, and an intercom to speak to customer service. Maintenance? Someone else does it. Cleaning? Someone else. Self-driving cars and elevators are about simplicity and convenience. We do less. They do more.

Self-driving cars and elevators share a lot of history, too. Elevators once required human operators of great skill, because early elevators were extremely difficult to maintain and safely operate. That sure sounds familiar.

You know what else sounds familiar? Always use the best tool for the job. There are places where elevators make more sense than escalators. Like tall buildings. It wouldn’t make sense to take 40 escalators to the top of the skyscraper, which is why no one installs that many. It would be slower and take up too much space.

There are also places the cars we own — with ever better driver assist technology — will remain the best tool for the job. Places like…anywhere self-driving cars aren’t designed to operate yet.

Roy’s Razor is the popular name for my self-driving litmus test, and it works for separating elevators from escalators too: can you sleep in it? No one’s going to sleep on an escalator, but nothing would prevent anyone from sleeping in an elevator, if they stayed in it long enough.

Except maybe a worried parent trying to take a toddler named Coco home.

“Why can’t I stay in the robo-vator, Dada?”

“Because it’s late. Also, mommy and daddy call it an elevator. Because elevators elevate us. Elevate means to go up.”

Coco froze, her little face deep in thought.

“Dada,” she said, then paused. “Why are robo-stairs called escalators if…they go down too?”

Kids. They ask all the best questions.

Alex Roy is Director of Special Operations at Argo.AI, host of the No Parking & Autonocast podcasts, editor-at-large at The Drive, founder of the Human Driving Association, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He held the Cannonball Run record from 2006-2013. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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