After ten days of festivities, the eighth annual Cinetopia Film Festival concluded May 19 at the Michigan Theater with a screening of “Autonomy,” a documentary about self-driving cars. The film, which was directed by Alex Horwitz (“Hamilton’s America”) and had originally aired at SXSW, explores the future of autonomous vehicles by tracing the history of cars and driving. While the film shies away from rigorous analysis of some of the more fundamental issues surrounding self-driving cars, “Autonomy” is an entertaining (if blatantly biased) introduction to autonomous vehicles.
“Autonomy” opens with Malcolm Gladwell describing his vintage BMW in adoring detail. It’s “the most beautiful thing I own,” he says, and the car certainly is lovely — baby blue, elegant but not impractical. Even for those whose cars are not pieces of impeccable German engineering, many people have some sort of emotional entanglement with their vehicle. “Autonomy” carefully outlines this relationship, inviting historians and experts to tell the story of how cars drifted from commodities of convenience to symbols of freedom, adventure and self-sufficiency. The movie deems cars embodiments of the desire to be masters of our own destiny, a proposal that’s spot-on. Beyond its practical uses, the car has become a co-conspirator, a dare to strike out on the road.
“You got a fast car / I want a ticket to anywhere / Maybe we make a deal / Maybe together we can get somewhere,” sings Tracy Chapman on “Fast Car,” and the whole song is full of longing, the car promising both escape and security. On “Highway Patrolman,” Bruce Springsteen breaks your heart describing a police officer who lets his brother escape to Canada. How? There’s a car chase, and a memory of brotherly love: “Well I chased him through them county roads / Till a sign said ‘Canadian border five miles from here’ / I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his tail lights disappear.” In other words, it’s never just a car.
What would it mean to change all this? That’s the question “Autonomy” strives to answer, surveying the legal, safety and social concerns that might arise if we hand the keys to our machines over to the machines. The film is at its best when it allows philosophers and industry professionals to weigh in on the morality of transferring the responsibilities of a driver to a machine. There’s a lot of interesting territory to cover, and “Autonomy” is engrossing. But I’m more interested in all the things “Autonomy” leaves out.
“Autonomy,” which was produced by Car and Driver Magazine, feels in some ways like an extended piece of propaganda from a director who isn’t fully ready to trot out the party line. The party line isn’t that self-driving cars will be a safe and inevitable aspect of our collective future — it’s that cars will be, in one form or another. They might look and operate differently, but autonomous vehicles are still designed as commodities to be bought and owned by individuals. “Autonomy” is focused on delineating the glamour and danger of cars, and it makes a captivating case for the role cars have, will and should play in our daily lives. However, it never stops to ask why we’re committing our innovative energy to rethinking personal vehicles. Malcolm Gladwell, who is vocal about his reservations, mentions the application of self-driving features to public transportation, but this remains a largely untouched topic.
“Autonomy” explains that for self-driving cars to operate at optimum safety and efficiency, autonomous vehicles would need to be nearly ubiquitous. Imagine this: There would be no need for stop signs, since your car would be able to sense a pedestrian or another vehicle and adjust accordingly. Cars could drive inches apart, and the frantic dance of merging onto a freeway or into a different lane would be soothed into a science. You could watch a movie on your commute, or send your kids to school in the family car without having to drop them off.
“Autonomy” illustrates just how appealing this would be, but what the movie makes less explicit is that this future would require a cultural and material revolution — one that would be radical in scale but conservative in ideology. In 2017, there were 276.1 million cars in the United States alone, and all of them would need to be phased out or converted to realize this transformation. Of course, the automotive industry is investing in self-driving technology — this could be their biggest opportunity for sales since cars were invented! Maybe I’m being cynical, but regardless, I struggle to imagine the efficacy of such a fundamental remaking of transportation when the goal is limited to accident- and stress-free driving. These are worthy aims, but it would be a grave mistake to pursue them without simultaneously considering the impact of cars on the environment.
“Autonomy” shows self-driving cars could mean a large reduction in crashes and pedestrian casualties. This is a wonderful possibility, but it’s an objective that shouldn’t be pursued uncritically. Car crashes are much more immediate and visible than fatalities from climate change, but both are equally deserving of consideration by automobile engineers. Autonomous vehicles might initially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially if the cars are electric. But unless they operate on a schema outside traditional, individual car ownership, the effects are unlikely to be drastic enough (or fast enough) to offset climate change.
In Southeast Michigan, it’s nearly heretical to suggest that cars shouldn’t be a linchpin of American life. I understand this: My grandfather worked in a Ford factory, and my mom still has two Ford-emblazoned forks that he took home from the cafeteria at work. The Ford Company’s pension plan kept my grandmother comfortable until she died. I own a car, and I like having one. “Autonomy” is right: The automobile industry is monumentally important to individuals and to the American imagination and economy, especially in Michigan. However, climate change will also impact the economy, in ways that automated cars do not fully account for.
Though the film offers exhaustive coverage of other aspects of self-driving cars, “Autonomy” doesn’t delve into the details of possible environmental benefits or damages. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America projects a two- to four-percent decrease in oil consumption from autonomous vehicles, and there are a number of projects showing autonomous technologies can help reduce emissions. This is good, but it’s not good enough, especially given the emissions that would be produced during manufacturing. Though “Autonomy” tries to sidestep the issue by ignoring it altogether, the choice to stay silent about climate change simply confirms the extent to which carbon neutrality is not a primary goal of autonomous vehicles. Given the revolutionary nature of self-driving cars, we should be demanding something more emancipatory.