Before the premiere of his new documentary, director Alex Horwitz references the 1899 press coverage following the first death from an automobile accident. At that time the technology was monumental and terrifying. The country knew that their entire lifestyle would never be the same. The attitude is eerily similar to 2019, as the world is careening toward the age of autonomous vehicles. Autonomy takes an expansive look at the moral dilemmas behind the technology and how a self-driving car can cause immense ripple effects in society.
The documentary maintains an interesting sense of objectivity by providing voices to every side of the argument. It explores practically every angle, creating an extremely dense and informative final product. The film’s most prominent contributor is author/journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who is an unabashed lover of car culture. Between two competing ideas of the technology being inspiring or foreboding, Gladwell definitely contributes to the latter.
For gearheads who love the control and the classic styles, it’s hard not to be afraid of cars turning into soulless pods. One adrenaline junkie does a long burnout, looks at the camera and says that self-driving cars can’t replicate that. Horwitz immediately cuts to a self-driving DeLorean doing the exact same thing.
If the film makes is making any clear statement, it’s that this technology is coming whether we like it or not. Companies continue to experiment with the autonomous vehicle, and an important issue is how these cars are tested. It’s difficult to think of a burgeoning industry with more practical stakes. Horwitz makes sure to show that these vehicles will eventually be used in everyday society. Having them as toys for rich people means nothing. Every time a self-driving vehicle is put on a normal highway there are lives at stake.
Billion dollar companies like Google, Uber, and Tesla are racing to master the technology without testing their products as thoroughly as they should. Gladwell makes an interesting point that car people and the computer people working for these tech giants experiment in different ways. The film’s emotional impact is revealed after showing examples of deaths by autonomous vehicles. Right when a breakthrough seems only a day away, we are reminded that there is no margin for error.
The human side of the documentary also shines through as Horwitz goes through a few of the several industries that would be drastically affected by self-driving technology. A sarcastic, good-natured semi driver knows that even though she might not actually drive her truck in the future, there are still other duties that she can still do. Self-driving tractors would also revolutionize the agricultural industry. Elderly people, even blind people could become more self-sufficient by utilizing an autonomous vehicle.
Autonomy challenges how society reacts to life-changing technology. Elevators and ATMs worked for years before humans decided to culturally accept them. The documentary even questions how we define “autonomy” by taking a closer look at control and our dependence on technology. The climate impact is the most notable topic missing from the documentary, but that detour would take another 90 minutes. Horwitz keeps the film at a brisk pace, diving deep but never straying too far away from the main topic. The change to autonomous vehicles is inevitable. Autonomy is an entertaining way to be well-informed on the nuances behind this technology. Horwitz shows that Kitt from Knight Rider is not a complete fantasy anymore.