'Autonomy' Documentary Asks The Big Questions About Self-Driving Technology

March 13, 2019
2mo ago

By Brian Henry

"Autonomy," a new documentary that premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW), does more than explain the technology behind how self-driving cars operate. Featuring perspectives from pioneers like Chris Urmson as well as "engineers, laypeople, and everything in between," director Alex Horwitz's film tackles the philosophical questions behind the idea of autonomy.

"[The film is] more about us and how we're afraid to embrace technology or ready to embrace it," Horwitz told Cheddar in a joint interview with Urmson. "Why that might be, why we like to give up control, or don't like to give it up."

The documentary also discusses more practical concerns ー like the security and safety risks around self-driving cars.

Urmson, the co-founder and CEO of self-driving car startup Aurora, acknowledged that the technology has a ways to go.

"The technology's not ready yet," he told Cheddar. "We're still developing it. No one is actually claiming they have a fully self-driving car today. We'll continue to advance it. Obviously the goal of this technology is to make our roads safer and more accessible and that's where we'll end up."

To make the film, Horwitz traveled to Japan and parts of Europe to speak to the pioneers behind the technology. He also sought out real "everyday people" like teenagers in Arizona going to school in Waymo rides.

One name many viewers will recognize is that of the writer Malcolm Gladwell, who narrates the film.

"As it turns out ー I had no idea about this ー Malcolm's a real car nut," Horwitz told Cheddar. "He's just so good at a holistic view of any topic. He's just got a great big brain and we wanted to use that."

But there are also those who aren't so keen on the idea of a self-driving car.

"There's also skeptics, we did some scenes with some old school car nuts who were like 'you'll take my car from my cold dead hand,'" Horwitz explained. "There are going to be a lot of growing pains."

But Urmson is confident that public sentiment is on the rise.

"You see these studies that say 60 percent of Americans don't want to use a self-driving car ー that means 40 percent of Americans do. And this a technology that doesn't exist. So I have no doubt, having seen people get in these vehicles and go from 'I don't believe it' to 'it's here and now and i want it' ー it's incredible."

Horwitz paused when Cheddar asked if he was sold on the technology being "mostly for good."

"I'm sold on the fact that it's coming," Horwitz said. "I don't think it's a debate about, is this viable or not. People like Chris are proving it's viable. It's going to come out. There's no like, instant street date where we'll all be driving them. It's going to roll out over the next few decades."

"I'm convinced that there is great good that can be accomplished with them," he added. "We did a scene with a blind man and he's talking about how it's just sort of opened up his world."