What is autonomy? This question is easy enough to answer: autonomy is freedom. It’s agency. It’s the ability to make (im)moral choices.
“Autonomy” is also the second and latest documentary from director Alex Horwitz (“Hamilton’s America,” “Alice Jacobs is Dead”). Through interviews with automotive journalists and industry leaders past and present, he investigates what autonomous cars are, how they’ve evolved, how safe they are compared to human-driven cars and more.
Two of the film’s executive producers, Malcolm Gladwell and Eddie Alterman, receive more screen time than any of its other stars. Gladwell is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers.” From 2009-19, Alterman was the editor-in-chief of Car and Driver, the largest automotive magazine in the US by circulation.
With Alterman attached, one might assume “Autonomy” angrily screamed, “Death to self-driving cars!” But they’d be wrong.
Instead, Alterman, Gladwell and the rest of Horwitz’s interviewees — except Australia-born long-haul trucker Debbie Desiderato — laid out the circumstances as if to say, “Autonomous cars are on the horizon. Here’s what you need to know.”
And they didn’t sugarcoat it.
“When your app crashes, nobody dies. So, welcome to Silicon Valley, because guess what, when your vehicle crashes, somebody could die,” noted Mark Rosekind in the movie.
Rosekind served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2014-16.
If Horwitz’s goal with “Autonomy” was to dispel any doubts skeptics may have regarding the dependability of autonomous technology and the integrity of the innovators developing it, then he achieved it. By extending the scope of his exploration of its applications beyond the asphalt to off-road, on the farm and in the lives of the elderly and those with disabilities, Horwitz nailed home the idea this technology will benefit society in remarkable ways.
The film’s message boils down to this: No one’s trying to take cars or driving away from anyone. They’re striving to improve — and even save — people’s lives.
“Autonomy” falls short of excellence primarily in its inefficient use of its own time. Exhibit A: its unneeded scenes featuring Japanese Porsche tuner Akira Nakai. Although shots of his souped-up, wide-body 964s were visually appealing, his dialogue wasn’t especially relevant or riveting. Nor did he contribute as much to the case against self-driving cars as members of the Drag’n Knights car club did earlier in the movie.
Even a few clips of Gladwell are less than vital, smoothing out transitions between talking points more than they contribute valuable content. His contributions frequently fall on the abstract end of the spectrum. They supplement the more material, practical evidence and experience of the other interviewees well. Gladwell’s presence will doubtless make “Autonomy” more entertaining for viewers who couldn’t care less about whether or not their car comes with a steering wheel in the future.
More often than not, Gladwell’s contributions aren’t exceptionally profound. Another interviewee even goes so far as to hilariously poke fun at Gladwell’s comments about the satisfaction drivers derive from mastering the art of parallel parking.
“[Working a stick-shift and parallel parking] were sort of annoying or even intimidating… but after a while, they gave you satisfaction. Master and pleasure are two sides of the same coin.”
Horwitz makes up for these drawbacks by skillfully weaving together a documentary that, despite its complete lack of narration, flows seamlessly through its 80-minute runtime. He accomplishes this by using bluegrass and rock music in scenes spotlighting cars of years past and techno music in those featuring the cars that people like Chris Urmson (co-founder and CEO of Aurora Innovation, a self-driving technology company) are developing today — the cars of the future.
He also utilizes old television and movie clips, from snippets of car commercials to scenes from “Knight Rider” and “Total Recall,” both to illustrate his interviewees’ words and to show that the concept of self-driving cars has long captivated audiences.
Soon, their ruling the road will no longer be a thing of science-fiction.
“Autonomy” is available for rent or purchase on iTunes and Google Play.