'Autonomy': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of SXSW
A reasonably good primer on the state of innovation in car tech.

Malcolm Gladwell laments the demise of fun-to-drive cars in a doc about the ascent of robo-mobiles.

It's little surprise that Car and Driver — a magazine that for generations has thrived on the American belief that automobiles say something about their owners, and that each year's new models are a legitimate cause for excitement — would have mixed feelings about the prospect of driverless vehicles that, in some observers' predictions, could very well look like conference rooms on wheels. Directing Autonomy, the magazine's assessment of the state of the art, Alex Horwitz finds plentiful alternatives to that office-on-wheels prediction, some as sleekly designed as any sports car C&D had drooled over in the past; but he also notes many reasons to dread what everyone seems to view as the inevitable rise of self-driving cars. Though viewers who follow the subject in print won't learn a whole lot they don't already know here — and, given technology's pace, it may be irrelevant in a year — the documentary gathers news in a useful way, prompting discussions about what variety of a computer-guided world we'd like to live in.

Viewers who feel that anyone with enough money to have an exotic-car collection should at the very least shut up about it might want to miss the film's first few minutes, in which Malcolm Gladwell (an executive producer) coos about "the most beautiful thing I own," a vintage BMW. But conspicuous consumption aside, it's clear that since their invention, cars have been about more than getting from house to work to the movies and back. Intentionally or not, we choose cars that say something about us; if we're teenage boys or share a mentality with them, we also want to feel the power of a massive, climate-destroying combustion engine at our command, propelling us along a curving road.

On the other hand, commuting is a big drag, and that's where most of us spend most of our driving lives. Autonomy finds it easy to understand why we'd want to be able to nap or play Candy Crush during the long drive to the office, and it explains that efforts to make this happen go back further than one might think. Horwitz introduces researchers who worked on the idea in Japan in the 1970s and Germany in the '80s; cited by most as a pioneer, Germany's Ernst Dickmanns used computer vision to make a van drive itself in that decade, eventually sending vans down the Autobahn at speeds above 100 mph. Innovation leapt forward in the 2000s, when the U.S. military's DARPA launched its Grand Challenge, a prize competition for teams building autonomous vehicles.

At this point in the doc, Horwitz takes us to Japan to meet a "Porsche tuner" who makes exquisite tweaks to the bodies of cars that are ostensibly so expensive because they're already perfectly designed. Why are we here? What does this have to do with autopilot?

Much more fruitful are sequences showing how Silicon Valley and the car industry might not be the best partners. Viewers may have heard the much-circulated 1990s jokes about what the world would be like if Microsoft made cars — first off, they'd crash twice a day — but the conflict here is no laughing matter: While automakers test, test and retest before sending a potential death machine out on the road, programmers are in a bigger hurry, rarely releasing a new version of an OS that is free of major bugs. Bugs in self-driving cars kill people, and observers rightly made a fuss when Elon Musk used Tesla owners as beta testers on highways the rest of us share.

Though it also explores the potential of self-drivers to change agriculture and mobility for the disabled, Autonomy is at its best when discussing this and other safety concerns — not least of which is the hackability of computer systems. Imagining a future in which entire freeways full of cars are controlled by a single traffic-scheduling computer system, Gladwell knows that thousands of cars could be wrecked by a single hacker. "That's gonna happen. It will," he declares.

Will the driverless world still, on average, be safer than the current one, in which 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error? That and many other issues raised here remain to be seen. You'll be forgiven for leaving Autonomy not knowing whether you should root for the brilliant inventors or fear the day their cars start whizzing by you.

Production company: Car and Driver
Director: Alex Horwitz
Producers: Chris Boyd, Kevin Mann, Michael Mann
Executive producers: Malcolm Gladwell, Eddie Alterman, Felix Difilippo, Alex Horwitz, Maury Postal
Editor: Brett Mason
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Sales: WME

80 minutes