When you think of driving, do you conjure up a psychologically satisfying experience? Do you feel nostalgia for the cars of your youth, tied in as they were to your identity and sense of self? Perhaps you like the way a car makes you keenly in control of your environment — how it creates a sense of safety and well-being.
Or are you, like many people, bored by commuting and running errands as you drive?
These and other ways that people experience driving are explored in a new documentary, Autonomy. The film chronicles the human side of emerging self-driving technology, tracing what Ford VP Ken Washington calls in the film “the representative symbol of mobility” from classic cars to today’s software influence on transportation.
Autonomy had its world premiere at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin in March, 2019. It educates an audience which hasn’t had much background knowledge about self-driving technology’s remarkable origins and evolution. It looks beyond the technical to ask pressing social questions:
- What is “control?”
- Who do we become as we relinquish control to machines?
- Do we—and will we—define ourselves by the technology we create?
- Are we giving up more than we realize with self-driving technology?
The Car and Driver article and film explore aspects of autonomy from economics to liability and from technology to reliability. They reveal the potential impact of self-driving technology through the lens of real people and relatable scenarios. The film has a pattern of infusing early historic footage of futuristic, nearly sci-fi depictions of self-driving vehicles — think The Jetsons, Minority Report, Total Recall, Knight Rider, or Forbidden Planet that enlivens tech talk.
Horwitz claims the American iconic internal combustion engine (ICE) as a starting point for the film. There are lots of shots of classic cars — ’74 Camaro, GTO — and interviews with car aficionados, collectors, and racers. The bond between driver and car is analogous to the larger theme of human and machine, an “unbreakable” bond, according a junker racer named Serial who runs with the Dragon Knights.
Building background knowledge through popular culture, the film helps to move a novice audience from cynicism to awareness. It presents a large multimedia melange — numerous interviews, movie/ television/ documentary clips, academic research via filmed experiments, and upbeat music to punctuate different settings.
Comparing Henry Ford’s manufacturing that created the modern transportation model to Silicon Valley’s impact on all that is technological, the film outlines how 3 constituents — Google, car manufacturers, and Uber — will help average consumers to adopt a shift to considering driving beyond nostalgia and identity. Several interviews point to the advent of cellphones and other smart technology as keen indicators that the value of time has changed, and, so, too, has personal transportation.
Also included are debates over regulations and discussions of the fear of AI decision-making. The trend toward self-driving pessimism in the film is often countered by roboticist Chris Urmson, who describes driving as “awesome” until he gets to San Francisco — “then it’s not.”
Insidious Technological Advancements that We Fail to Notice
As the film enters its second half, it becomes increasingly evident that self-driving technology could provide a whole new level of control that drivers never had before. Journalist Tamara Warren notes that we’ve been using autonomous technology for decades. The film gently inches us to the rise of artificial intelligence through the DARPA Grand Challenge, which inspired today’s autonomous vehicles. It also points out the ongoing tiff between Silicon Valley and the auto industry, arguing (oddly) that it is automotive history that is really the genesis of today’s self-driving moment in time.
With a now-noticeable software perspective to transportation, several experts in the film suggest that self-driving technology needs to be introduced to the public in fairly simplistic measures, so that average people can adjust to the idea more readily. They offer the analogy of an elevator operator, who was once seen as indispensable for rising to upper floors of high-rise buildings but is now unnecessary. Recognizing the familiar in autonomous vehicles could usher in an era for many people in which transportation and career opportunities emerge in ways that are beyond today’s imagination.
To get us to that point, one section of the documentary reviews how a car “sees” by comparing it to human vision with a visual-spatial sense of orientation. Tracing self-driving technology from the earliest work of controlling a car with software to today’s cameras, lidar, and radar also illuminates and dispels likely audience confusion of self-driving capabilities.
Yes, the film discusses the forecasted likelihood of large-scale job loss, but it attempts to balance the negative with the positive, such as in what will be fewer transportation deaths and injuries when self-driving becomes a norm of daily life. Urmson states that “we kill 1.25 million people annually” in traffic deaths, a fact that is supported by the Association for Safe International Travel.
Gladwell’s Trepidation about Self-Driving Technology
Directed by Alex Horwitz, the project emerged from an editorial feature in the November 2017 issue of Car and Driver, which was guest-edited by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s bestsellers —The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw — draw upon history, psychology, and storytelling to reshape the way we think of the world around us. In those texts, he points to sometimes subtle connections across society as pivotal to the way we now live everyday.
In Autonomy, however, Gladwell seems more the curmudgeonly grandfather who refuses to try something new. He muses that “creating an interdependent web of autonomy” requires “a systems approach before you release this technology out onto the roads.” He warns that, with autonomous vehicles, hackers can break in, so, “unless you’re comfortable with that, you can’t go down that road.”
He frames autonomy as creating driving situations in which “you have to worry about how the algorithm thinks,” you are “surrendering control,” and we as a society should be having “a larger conversation about what the rules and expectations of that dependency should look like.”
Gladwell hardly seems the futurist here, say, of Douglas Rushkoff.
The Future Will Be Different Because of Self-Driving Technology
Interestingly, the film allows the audience to consider a different kind of tomorrow for us all with self-driving cars. New cultural habits will emerge, and new laws will be promulgated. The design and flow of cities will be different. New careers will open up in insurance, accountability, and within-car entertainment.
Recent studies predict the potential economic impact of the passenger economy once fully autonomous pilot-less vehicles begin to proliferate globally in 2035 and by 2050 to account for nearly 50% of all vehicles sold with a value of $7 trillion.
And there’s also the convenience factor. In the book, Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car… and How It Will Reshape Our World, Lawrence D. Burns describes a transportation future where we “safely and conveniently use autonomous vehicles to take us where we want to go” (p. 1). Optimism permeates that book, with the acknowledgement that the mobility disruption will affect different people differently. The elderly will experience liberated mobility, while some current autoworkers many lose their jobs as a result of autonomous technologies.
“If we can pull it off,” those authors conclude, “and we will, we’re going to take 1.3 million fatalities a year and cut them by 90%. We’re going to erase the challenges of parking in cities. All of that land will allow us to reshape downtowns. People who haven’t been able to afford a car will be able to afford the sort of mobility only afforded to those with cars. And we’re going to slow climate change” (p. 326).
The producers of Autonomy seem to have forgotten to mention self-driving transportation’s influence on climate action.
Yes, Autonomy the film takes very seriously the strong counterargument: future cars and the resulting social change will alter the way we live daily, and we need to prepare the US better for such a shift.
With the need for many fewer personal transportation vehicles, cities will become more human-centric, giving senior citizens back their mobility, and, literally, saving lives. They will create new levels of convenience and time, which will foster other social transformations.
It’s time to help the generations that are entrenched in memories of cars as identity to learn about transportation in new and liberating ways.
If you’re interested in a local festival or screening, check out the film’s website.
Images retrieved from the “Autonomy” documentary.