Autonomy documentary at SXSW digs into questions about self-driving cars

SXSW was the site of the world premiere of Autonomy, a documentary exploring self-driving cars and what this technology means to society.

Autonomy documentary at SXSW digs into questions about self-driving cars

At SXSW 2019, TechRepublic Senior Writer Teena Maddox spoke with Autonomy director Alex Horwitz about how the documentary explores self-driving cars and what this technology means to society. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

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Teena Maddox: Tell me about the film, Alex.

Alex Horwitz: Autonomy is a feature documentary that explores self-driving cars, how we got where we are, the state of the tech now, but more importantly, questions about where it might go. It's not just a movie for car fans or for tech heads, it's really a mass audience kind of film. I think we're on the verge of a very big societal shift. I think that the development of self-driving technology is really gonna change things in fundamental ways about how we move through the world, how we interact with each other. I think it concerns all of us, so it's really a movie about getting everybody to pay attention to something I think is coming our way and giving them the questions that they need to be asking of themselves, each other, and other companies that make these things for us.

Teena Maddox: What question do you get asked the most about autonomous vehicles?

Alex Horwitz: The thing I get asked the most often is, "How scary are they? Are they really gonna kill us?" Some variation on that. I'm happy to report that getting in most of these machines, and I got into some consumer driver assistance cars and also some more heavily-automated research vehicles in the course of making the movie, getting into them is a very mundane experience. It's not a crazy roller coaster ride. It's just sort of another version of a thing we know, which is getting in something that takes you somewhere.

I think that's good news for anybody who's afraid or skeptical of these things. They do have a long way to go before they're... I'll say before they're ready for prime time, before they're ready for wide deployment, and before we can trust them fully to do this task for us without our attention. By and large, they're not there yet. That's the answer to the biggest question I get.

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Teena Maddox: In the making of the film, what surprised you most about autonomous vehicles?

Alex Horwitz: I was so surprised by how far back the technology went and when it started. I had a sort of passing layman tech nerd's understanding that Google or DARPA, the Defense Department's advanced research initiatives, that they were starting stuff in like the late '90s into the early 2000s and that's where this came from and then the Google boom happened and now there's all this market competition. The idea for this goes back to da Vinci, who had ideas for a self-propelled cart, and the earliest reality of it was in the late '70s. The early '80s were the first actually functioning self-driving cars. There were precursors, too. Remote control full-size cars in the '20s and future highway systems were like a car was following an invisible track, so it looked driverless but wasn't actually.

I was amazed by how far back it went. I thought this was very new and it was cool to find out how far back it went. We actually discovered that the two engineers responsible for those first two cars I mentioned, a German engineer and a Japanese engineer, are still alive, very much with it. We found them, they're in our film, and we're getting to showcase their work in a way that I don't think has ever been seen publicly. I'm really happy to sort of make this movie of record for the first two pioneers.

Teena Maddox: How do you think autonomy will change the future?

Alex Horwitz: Well, this technology... I mean, the short answer is I don't know exactly how it will change the future, and I think anybody who gives you a definite version, they say, "It's gonna happen just like this and on such and such a date'', I think they can't possibly know that. Most of the people who have an idea are gonna have to be wrong because they have all these competing ideas about it. I think it's gonna play out very slowly over a long period of time. I think it's very likely that in the very near future you'll be on a trip somewhere and you'll be on a shuttle bus between terminals at an airport and you'll go, "Uh-oh, nobody's driving this thing", and then the next car you buy will have a lot of driver-assistant features. I think it's baby steps like that.

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How it will change things in very fundamental ways about reduced traffic accidents, hopefully, by great numbers. The promise of them is it's really gonna make things safer, and it's also gonna possibly free us up to not stop living our lives when we're in transition between two places. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. That could just mean more time hunched over in front of a phone, or it could be more time to interact with our family on a road trip. We don't really know yet, and a lot of people have different ideas. I think we all just need to... Also at the same time, ask difficult questions of ourselves and of the people designing this technology, because it's also opening us up to new security vulnerabilities and new kinds of traffic problems that we probably haven't even begun to think about. That's a very long answer.

Now, how Autonomy my movie will change the industry? Well, of course, I want them all to watch it. I'm making a little joke out of it, but I really do. I want everybody to ask the questions of both sides, whether you're for the technology or against it. I think the movie just asks fundamentally important questions for both sides. How does it work? How does it not work? What do we know? What don't we know? It gives everybody, both manufacturers and us as consumers things to think about for the future.

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