The Ironic Need To Make Sure That Self-Driving Cars Look Like Self-Driving Cars, At Least For The Time Being

Quickly, tell me what you think a self-driving car looks like.

Most people have not seen a self-driving car in the wild, so to speak, having only seen self-driving cars indirectly and as shown in online videos, automotive advertisements, and glossy pictures posted on social media or used in daily news reports.

For those people that perchance live in an area whereby self-driving cars are being tested out on public roadways, they tend to see self-driving cars quite often.

The first reaction to seeing a self-driving car with your own eyes is that it is an amazing sight to see (for my first-hand eyewitness coverage of what it is like to ride in a self-driving car, see the link here). This is the future, right before your very eyes. One day, presumably, self-driving cars will be everywhere, and they will be a common sight. We won’t take notice of self-driving cars at that juncture, treating them as rather mundane, ordinary, and all-out ho-hum.

Right now, they are a marvel to behold.

Imagine if you had been around when horses were used as the mainstay for transportation around town. You kept hearing stories about a contraption that became known as a car, and you were puzzled, intrigued, and unsure of what the thing might exactly do or look like. If you suddenly found yourself walking along and happened upon a car coming down the road, undoubtedly your mouth would gape open and you would stare in utter amazement and disbelief.

That is somewhat the reaction for those that are living and driving in areas that have self-driving cars puttering around on their local streets and highways.

After a while, though, the excitement and allure wear off.

Sure, there is still some residual thrill when you see a self-driving car, but that initial surge of adrenaline has worn off and you begin to envisage that the self-driving car is, well, a car. What that portends is that if you are driving your car, and a self-driving car comes into your lane, you don’t especially care that it is a self-driving car. You treat it like any other car and merely want to get around it or are irked when it goes too slowly for your driving journey and you are traffic-wise stuck behind it.

When I asked you to indicate what a self-driving car looks like, it was somewhat of a trick question, or maybe a tricky question per se.

The essence of the question amounts to whether you would even realize that a self-driving car is coming down your street or that it has pulled in front of you on that multi-lane highway that you are zipping along on. There is a strong possibility that a self-driving car could be right next to you, and potentially you didn’t even know it was there.

You might be thinking, gosh, that just doesn’t seem possible, since you would quite obviously know a self-driving car if you happened upon one.

Why is that?

The easiest answer is that there would presumably be an entire rack of electronic gear and spiffy looking gadgets all over the rooftop of the self-driving car. We’ve all seen and gotten used to the idea that a self-driving car has an entire suite of specialized sensors, consisting of video cameras galore, radar, LIDAR, ultrasonic units, thermal imaging, and so on. Surely, this is a dead giveaway that a self-driving car is a self-driving car.

Today’s question then is this: How can you visually discern or recognize a self-driving car versus other conventional cars that are ostensibly not self-driving?

Before I address that fascinating point, let’s take a moment to make sure we are all discussing the topic of self-driving cars in the same manner. I mention this facet because there is an abundance of confusion about what it means when you refer to a self-driving car.

Let’s unpack that definition and then return to contemplating whether or not you can recognize a self-driving car if the time comes to do so.

One other quick point, I’ve previously discussed that there is a potential downside if all self-driving cars end-up looking alike, which is tangential to this herein discussion, but you might find it equally of interest (at this link here).

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered a Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Spotting Them In The Wild

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

Returning to the mainstay of this discussion, consider whether you would recognize that a car is a self-driving car, doing so by simple visual inspection and not particularly by digging under-the-hood or having someone hand you a testimonial that you are indeed looking at a bona fide self-driving car (we’ll consider a self-driving car as one that is now or is trying sincerely to achieve or attain a Level 4 or a Level 5 capability).

Okay, as mentioned earlier, perhaps you would know via the rack of sensory devices that are protruding from the top of the car that the vehicle you are observing must be a self-driving car. In localities that have a slew of self-driving cars that are crisscrossing a town or city, such as in Silicon Valley, there are so many of these self-driving cars that the racks appear plentiful, as though every car was handed a rack of handy dandy electronic gizmos.

As an aside, a funny anecdote might suffice here.

The humorous twist is that during the winter months (obviously, Silicon Valley doesn’t get the harsh winters seen on the other coast, but the residents can drive an hour or two and get to mountains with snowy conditions), many people put ski racks on their conventional car rooftops. When you are driving on a busy street in the Silicon Valley area, you might see cars all around you with rooftop paraphernalia.

All of them have at a quick glance the same bulkiness of objects piled onto the top of the car and thus some might be hosting a state-of-the-art sensor suite, while others have winter camping gear and maybe skis. All in all, it is a veritable sea of cars that have contraptions on their rooftops.

The humor being that suddenly all cars look alike (by rooftop clutter alone), implying they are all self-driving cars, or perhaps they are all ordinary cars that perchance have a smattering of wintery odds-and-ends on them.

Of course, turns out there are only a few that are self-driving cars, while the rest are conventional cars.

At least that’s the prevalence right now.

But let’s put to the side the potential confusion or confounding of one type or rooftop rack versus another. Other than the possibility of being momentarily fooled into thinking that a car is a self-driving car by some other type of mundane rooftop rack, can you be one hundred percent certain that a rooftop rack that appears to consist of electronics is thusly mounted onto a (there you have it!) self-driving car?

Well, maybe.

There are two problems with this kind of identification scheme.

First, as self-driving cars are becoming more advanced, you might have noticed that the racks have generally gotten slimmer, more streamlined, and less obtrusive. The early days consisted of seemingly wantonly mounted gear that seemed to look like someone just stuck a bunch of wires and oddball equipment onto the roof of a car. It was garish and immediately obvious to the eye.

No mistaking a self-driving car since it was the vehicle with the dome top and spinning or flashing lights and contrivances.

Gradually, much of that gear is being fitted into the overall shape of the car. Also, the electronics have gotten smaller and have a dramatically lessened footprint. There are also ways to essentially disguise the devices, making them seem as though they belong rightfully on the vehicle, rather than looking like a Frankenstein that has weird parts in jutting or overhanging places.

Secondly, conventional cars that are progressively getting more advanced ADAS are also being outfitted with many of the same sensory devices as those on a true self-driving car. In that manner, a modern conventional car is going to look a lot like a self-driving car.

The initial self-driving cars were dramatic looking and had that elephant in the room splendor about them. They could not be missed. They could not be mistaken. Nowadays, the elephant has been transformed into the herd of bison, and even regular bison are starting to morph toward the same look as the transformed elephants.

They say you can tell a zebra by its stripes, but suppose you tone down the stripes and also are adding stripes to the preponderance of donkeys or everyday mules that cart us around on our byways and streets.

Sorry to say that a rooftop rack of gaudy electronics is not going to be a surefire sign of a self-driving car.

I’m guessing that some of you might already have been yelling out that instead of looking at the rooftop there is another obvious place that you ought to be looking at, namely the driver’s seat.

If there is a human in the driver’s seat, the car is presumably conventional. If there is no one sitting in the driver’s seat, and the car is in motion, the car must be a self-driving car.

Case closed.

Well, you are onto something there, but this spying technique has its downsides.

Let’s see why.

To try and expediently pursue self-driving cars, most of the automakers and self-driving tech firms have chosen to use conventional cars and retrofit them with the self-driving tech stuff.

In the future, we might instead have specially designed self-driving cars. For example, there won’t be a need for a steering wheel and nor any pedals, since the AI driving system will be working on the inside of the vehicle and not need those human usable driving controls. Some vehemently insist that we must get rid of the human driving controls, otherwise, there will be people that are going to be tempted to drive a car that ought to be driven solely by the AI driving system.

Part of the logic is that there are about 40,000 annual fatalities due to car crashes in the United States alone, and around 2.5 million injuries (for more on these stats, see the link here). These are to a great extent considered attributable to human drivers that are driving while intoxicated, driving while distracted, and so on. The hope is that by using self-driving cars and reducing the number of human drivers or the volume of human driving, we won’t have those same human driving foibles and consequential deaths or injuries.

Thus, remove the driving controls from self-driving cars.


We don’t know yet that this is going to be entirely acceptable, at least in the following way. If the removal of driving controls from self-driving cars is going to somehow lead to no longer allowing conventional cars to exist, and ergo denying people the opportunity to drive cars, some are quite upset about that outcome. It is said that people are stating they will never give up their driving until you pry their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

If there aren’t any steering wheels, at all, seemingly there is no prying off needed.

Anyway, shifting our attention back to the driver’s seat, the assumption would be that if there is not a human seated in the driver’s seat, and the vehicle is underway, it must be a self-driving car.

The thing is, as mentioned, many of the self-driving cars that are currently being tested are conventional cars and there is a driver’s seat and there is a steering wheel. In theory, a human could try to sit in the driver’s seat. In that case, the assumption that a self-driving car is a self-driving due to the absence of someone in the driver’s seat is no longer always a truism (i.e., it is a self-driving car, and yet there is, in fact, a person sitting in the driver’s seat).

By-and-large, these self-driving cars have locked-out the use of the driving controls, or upon an attempt to use a driving control by someone inside the car, the AI driving system emits an alert and will take some action such as bringing the vehicle to a safe halt. Therefore, we can properly consider the car to be a self-driving car, albeit it might appear to be a conventional car because a human has manhandled their way into the driver’s seat and yet is not at all driving the vehicle.

The point is though that a person could be seated in the driver’s seat and yet not driving the car.

A quick glance at the car would only showcase that a person is sitting in the driver’s seat, and you would not necessarily realize they aren’t actively operating the driving controls. Furthermore, with many of the ADAS, such as even the simplest form of cruise control, someone might be sitting in the driver’s seat, and they are considered fully responsible for the driving, but they do not have their hands on the steering wheel (depending upon the type of monitoring or setup devised by the ADAS maker).

Here’s another variation.

Envision a self-driving car that looks like a conventional car, doing so because it is based on a conventional car that has been retrofitted to be a self-driving car. Suppose that the driving controls have been entirely removed (there are legal ramifications regarding this, which is why you don’t see this particular happening as yet).

A human is seated in the seat that was once the driver’s seat. There aren’t any driving controls, but that’s fine in the sense that the AI driving system is going to be doing the driving. This person is really a passenger now and no longer a driver. They are a passenger that just so happens to be seated in the seat that we customarily associate with a driver’s seat.

You glance over at this self-driving car as it passes you on the highway. From your perspective, there is a person seated in the driver’s seat. It is nearly impossible to gauge whether or not they are a driver, since maybe they are using cruise control or otherwise are somehow driving but maybe doing a lousy job of the driving task.

Once again, we have a circumstance of a self-driving car that has a person seemingly “at the wheel” in the manner of a human sitting in the driver’s seat.

I know what you are thinking, which is that there isn’t a steering wheel and therefore this is an entirely noticeable indicator that despite a human in the driver’s seat, this must be a self-driving car.


It seems a bit of a stretch that we are now basing the difference between a self-driving car and a conventional car on the appearance or lack of appearance of a steering wheel.

On a related topic, we cannot include the pedals since that is an absurdity of distinction, whereby from outside of a car, the odds of being able to readily see whether a car has a gas pedal, and a brake pedal is on the borderline of ridiculousness. You would have to (somewhat literally) place your face against the glass window and look straight into the vehicle to readily figure out whether there are any pedals included.  

We’ll stick with the steering wheel as a telltale clue.

If you are driving in clogged traffic, do you really believe that you can glance around and peer sufficiently into other cars to detect whether they have a steering wheel or not?

You might be able to marginally do so, though it would take a concerted effort to make sure that what you were seeing is what you were seeing. In other words, your mind might convince you there is a steering wheel when there isn’t one, plus your mind might trick you into thinking there isn’t a steering wheel when there is one there. Realize we are discussing a circumstance whereby you are driving in your car, which is underway at some speed such as 40 miles per hour, and you are glancing at a swarm of cars around you, all of which are also moving at a similar speed.

We can add to this conundrum that many cars have tinted windows or otherwise are rather hard to peer into.

The bottom-line to all of this discussion is that you might not be able to readily discern that a self-driving car is a self-driving car. Everything else being equal, a self-driving car is going to potentially look a lot like conventional cars, and conventional cars are going to look a lot like self-driving cars. Unless you take a microscopic kind of inspection, it will be hard to tell one from the other by any scant glance.

You might remember from various war movies that during World War II there were silhouette checklists or charts that were used to try and figure out what kind of enemy ship you might see while at sea. From afar, you might see a naval ship and not be sure whether it was friend or foe. Also, it was important to know what kind of a ship it was, whether it might be an aircraft carrier versus a destroyer.

In terms of self-driving cars, just a few years ago, a silhouette chart would easily allow you to look at a self-driving car and instantly know that it was a self-driving car and who the maker was. Not so much anymore, and likely increasingly lessening.


Now that we’ve covered that ground, the other question that has likely popped into your head is whether it makes a difference whether you can discern a self-driving car from a conventional car at a glance.

I’d argue that yes, it does indeed make a difference.

For the automakers and self-driving tech firms, it makes a difference in that they want you to know that they are making a self-driving car and you ought to recognize as such that their car going down your street is their self-driving car.

Not just any self-driving car, but their specific brand.

That’s important to them as brand recognition.

There is an intense race toward who will get self-driving cars first. Also, if someone else’s self-driving car messes up, you certainly don’t want the general public and nor regulators to think it was your brand, and instead realize straightforwardly that it was a competing brand.

Beyond the desires of those that make or operate self-driving cars, are there other reasons to be able to distinguish a self-driving car from a conventional car?

One viewpoint is that human drivers need to know which cars around them are human-driven versus which ones are being driven by AI. Human drivers have a right to know, one would assert.

On the other hand, a counterargument is that if the self-driving cars are operating properly and lawfully, it ought to not make one bit of difference whether you are aware that the car is self-driving. You should treat all cars as equals, regardless of human-driven ones or AI-driven ones.

Is this a molehill being made into a mountain?

While you ponder the matter, it is a pretty good bet that the automakers and self-driving car firms are going to want to ensure that you know that a self-driving car, their self-driving car brand, is the car that is driving next to you on the roadway. Similar to how Uber and Lyft want to make sure that you know you are riding in one of “their” requested ridesharing cars, the same will be true for those vaunted self-driving cars.

You’ve likely already noticed that self-driving cars are being painted with specific color schemes by the various makers and also brandish the company name or nickname.

I suppose there is another way to readily know that a self-driving car is a self-driving car. This is maybe the easiest way and doesn’t require any fancy rooftop rack, nor a specialized spectacular paint job, or any other visually standout indications or accouterments.

Just ask the car.

If it’s a true self-driving car, hopefully, the AI is good enough to tell you so.