‘Autonomy’ Review: Self-Driving Vehicles Get A Fair Trial
Alex Horwitz punctuates hope with a wise warning in this techy documentary on driverless cars.
After its November 2019 release, I finally managed to steal a little time last weekend to watch Autonomy by Alex Horowitz. As a nod to my very first Medium post Machine-Human Symbiosis — Are We Ready?, in which I discuss driverless vehicles and the behaviours humans must unlearn before we can adapt to and fully trust them, I thought it would be fun to have a bash at reviewing the documentary.
Following his debut feature Hamilton’s America, about the making of popular musical Hamilton, Horwitz brings us something much techier here — and much more up my street, I have to confess. The young filmmaker cleverly chooses to kick off Autonomy by putting to use perhaps his most valuable resource, a delightfully eccentric and quick-witted Malcolm Gladwell — who also happens to be one of the documentary’s executive producers.
A few years back, I had the pleasure of reading Malcolm’s revolutionary book The Tipping Point, which looks at the science behind viral trends in business, marketing and human behaviour. I became an instant fan, so when I learned he played a role in this project, I was excited. And the brilliant writer didn’t let me down, bringing his renowned ability to come at subjects from an unusual angle — an approach prudently mimicked by Horwitz from start to finish.
As Autonomy gets underway, Malcolm and a few lesser-known talking heads speak fondly of cars — specifically classic cars — and our relationship with them. This opens the door to a fascinating and broad-reaching exploration of where we’re at right now with self-driving cars and the issues they present.
Thanks to the pessimistic tone of many articles on AI today, I’d suspected a similar approach here. Admirably, as every good documentary-maker should, Horwitz comes at his material objectively, steering clear of gratuitously whipping up a blind panic — even when tackling the real downsides and trickier challenges of autonomous vehicles. And he achieves this mainly by wisely balancing any cynicism — like that towards the potential loss of old jobs — with optimism — like that towards the potential creation of new jobs.
Luckily, the folks Horwitz brings on board — including Gladwell, Car Talk host Ray Magliozzi and former Car and Driver Editor-in-Chief Eddie Alterman — also turn up with a critical eye. They never glorify technological advancement, and equally, they never rave excessively about times gone. Although a host of colourful characters from the varied worlds of vehicle automation, drag racing and transportation certainly don’t hold back on their thoughts.
Ideal for anyone lacking deep knowledge on the rise of driverless cars and what they mean for society, this carefully considered and incisive documentary offers a snippet of everything a viewer could need to know on the subject. However, those who keep track of the subject — one covered heavily by the media — won’t discover anything all that new or mind-blowing.
Although Horwitz casts a wide net, with only 80 minutes to play with, sadly he doesn’t have the scope to stay on any one idea for too long. And so, you’re best advised to delve deeper into anything of interest once the end credits roll — but it’s all so absorbing you’ll figure that out yourself.
These time constraints, standard in feature-length films and documentaries across the board, do confer an advantage though. They mean Horwitz can’t ever veer into dullsville, where he could focus too much on the drier parts of the topic — a tragic wrong-turn made by so many other documentary-makers.
The filmmaker refuses to linger on the likes of history, legislation, regulation, and so on, less interesting to some viewers — although not me. Instead, he opts to zero in on the goals of vehicle autonomy, including the lives that could be saved through increased road safety and improved mobility for disabled people. Not to mention all the extra time we’ll have to kick back, channelling Lady Penelope, and get on with other more enjoyable or important tasks as we let machines play Parker for a while.
The key message we should walk away with after Autonomy is that self-driving vehicles will irreversibly change both society and the face of transportation, and it’s vital we get used to that.
They’ll steal control of our mobility and they’ll kill the satisfaction we once obtained from driving. And they’ll do a whole lot more too — we just need to be ready for it. We must accept that driverless vehicles aren’t something happening around us but to us and that it won’t be long before they alter our existence beyond recognition.
Looking at the developments made in the field over the past few years, I have no reason to disagree with any of this. In fact, I made very similar points in my aforementioned post on machine-human symbiosis.
Always fair-minded, Horwitz wants us to walk away from Autonomy feeling positive and excited about our future with autonomous cars, but also reserving some degree of caution. Going into the very near future, there are questions we should ask ourselves. How much should we be willing to give away? How much should we try, desperately, to hold onto? What level of error should we accept from machines? More or less than we currently accept from humans?
All in, Autonomy is superb — so superb I can even overlook the soul-destroying use of nostalgious (not a word) at one point in place of nostalgic. We’re seriously lacking projects aimed at helping the public understand AI and everything it entails, so it’s great to see a feature like this delivering information in an accessible, digestible way. I’m glad the documentary highlights what’s coming without throwing people into a blue funk or leading them to think that tech is some panacea for our every last problem.
One tiny niggle is that I’d prefer the story hadn’t been quite so America-centric. Unfortunately, this is often the case with documentaries, movies and television shows made by Americans. Although Horwitz did branch out to other countries, a touch more perspective from elsewhere in the world would go a long way, increasing the documentary’s appeal to a wider audience. Then again, I suppose we can all be guilty of writing about subjects from our own national perspective now and then.
This minor flaw doesn’t ruin the documentary’s overall impact, nor does its lack of any technical brilliance. And neither weakens the noble spirit in which it’s intended, one that aims to inform and to question, one of hope and caution combined.
You’ll find Autonomy on Prime Video. Maybe you can take it easy with a cuppa and watch this instead of driving your car — one day soon (unless you already have a human Parker, that is).
Check out the trailer here: