New documentary Autonomy makes the convincing case that self-driving cars will change everything

Autonomy, a new documentary on self-driving cars directed by Alex Horwitz and produced by Car and Driver magazine, gets its most grievous sin out of the way in the first 15 minutes. Executive producer and New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell discusses his vintage BMW, while a rotating cast of other talking heads wax poetic about the rise and fall of American car culture. As someone who doesn’t own a car, or the book-deal advance to buy a vintage one, I had trouble relating.

Thankfully, the movie’s nostalgic phase passes quickly. Even better, they are actually making a point. Autonomy, which had its world premiere here at SXSW in Austin this past week, is a comprehensive, thorough examination of the state of autonomous vehicles, and a vital bit of education for people who haven’t paid close attention to the technology’s slow, steady arrival.

Using Gladwell and the American love affair with cars as a springboard, Horwitz draws a clear line from the origins of the automobile all the way to the rise of artificial intelligence, the DARPA Grand Challenge that kick-started the modern autonomous revolution, and the current, albeit messy, partnership between Silicon Valley and the auto industry. He throws a lot of history up on the screen, but it’s easy to digest it all before the documentary shifts into a higher gear to discuss the thornier topics facing our self-driving future.

Even though it was produced by an American car magazine that’s very much invested in viewers owning combustion engines, Autonomy never veers into sensationalism or fear-mongering, even as it introduces muddy concepts like large-scale job loss and the innumerable deaths and injuries humans face on the road.

One interview with an aging truck driver is especially poignant. She fears that the job she has done for years and clearly loves will one day be automated away or shifted to packing trucks, where she can no longer appreciate the scenery that punctuates her long, idle drives. But she also recognizes that autonomous vehicles may save lives — perhaps even hers. In another equally powerful moment, a blind man riding shotgun in a test vehicle places his hand lightly underneath the bottom of the steering wheel and marvels as it automatically guides the car around a countryside bend.

Horwitz has clearly done his homework. Autonomy hits every major beat of the self-driving industry’s long, often bumpy history. Just when savvy audiences might start wondering whether it’ll mention Uber’s self-driving fatality in Tempe, Arizona, or the trolley-problem thought experiment that captivates ethicists and philosophers, Horwitz pops in a clear, concise, thoughtful introduction. He never stays too long on any one topic, but he weaves smoothly between debates over regulations, discussion of the fear of AI decision-making, and every other major concern and talking point poised to dominate the autonomous conversation in the coming decades.

If there’s one broad takeaway from the film, which doesn’t proclaim anything too controversial, it’s that self-driving cars promise to be a paradigm shift on a society-altering scale. It’s a convincing argument. While lowering traffic deaths is, at the moment, the ostensible moral goal of autonomous research and development, Autonomy lays out piece by piece how self-driving cars and the AI research underpinning them could ripple outward. Cities will change, new jobs will be invented and old ones will disappear, cultures will react and shift, and new laws will be written.

On the business side, entire industries will pop up to deal with everything from insurance and accountability to in-car entertainment, once our seats swivel 180 degrees and we can take our eyes off the road. The widely assumed value of the autonomous market three decades from now is $7 trillion. It’s easy to think of self-driving cars as a peripheral advancement, constantly happening in the background. But Autonomy helps even the most unaware viewer conceptualize the impact and its potential timeline as not quite near and immediate, but absolutely on the horizon.

One obvious shortcoming to Horwitz’s approach is that he largely seems to view the situation through an American lens, in which the car stubbornly sticks around, and the punishment is Gladwell lecturing us all about it for eternity. While the film does incorporate interviews and brief mentions of China, Japan, and parts of Europe, it never seriously entertains a future where public transit and so-called micromobility (e-scooters and bike shares) obviates the need to own or even use a car. That could very well be the case in many countries outside the US, and even in larger American cities — just take a look at the scooter explosion here in Austin this week for SXSW to get an idea of what that version of the future may look like.

Regardless, a crucial pillar of the film’s success is that it never features interview subjects who uncritically think technology always bends toward progress. As easy as it is to chide Gladwell for being steeped in car culture, he routinely makes excellent points about how complicated this is all going to become. So much of the debate around self-driving cars, and technological disruption in general, is poisoned by bad-faith arguments, often on both sides. Tech both as an industry and as a nebulous utopian idea is too often portrayed either as the savior of the human race, or as a misanthropic, self-righteous machine of capitalism.

Complain once about how, like Uber and Lyft, rideshare companies have made mistakes in deploying hundreds of electric vehicles in cities that are unprepared to deal with them, and 10 people will happily line up to tell you that cars kill people, and the world would be better if they didn’t exist. Or, similarly, express concern that testing self-driving automobiles on public roads will inevitably lead to traffic deaths, and proponents of the technology will rightly point out that it’s an inevitability, then wrongly insist the media shouldn’t cover those tests or those deaths. (And tread carefully before ever wading into Elon Musk fandom.)

Image: Daimler

But Autonomy takes very seriously the strong counterargument: future cars, and the largely positive social change that could arrive when they drive themselves, will create monumental ripple effects that we will need to carefully anticipate, recognize, and account for, as a society.

If anything in Autonomy might leave a bad taste in the mouth of techno-optimists, it’s Gladwell and his skepticism getting the final word. But his parting anecdote — about how the car industry is starting to care more about technology than customers — is enlightening. Gladwell bemoans his status as the dinosaur in the room. The auto industry is shifting away from a commercial venture that fetishizes car ownership as an identity, and moving toward a grander purpose: helping make cities more human-centric, giving senior citizens back their mobility, and literally saving lives.

There isn’t a better example of technology as a vehicle for progress than a project like Autonomy, where an industry known for monetizing our attention and selling us iterative screens is realigning itself toward actually changing the world.

Autonomy had its world premiere at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, and is currently seeking distribution. Watch its website for additional festival or local screenings.