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Autonomy SXSW

SXSW 2019 Documentary Review: ‘Autonomy’: Self-Driving Cars: Can You Sleep at the Wheel?

Documentaries were, more often than in the past, the center of attention at this year’s SXSW Conference, which took place in Austin, TX, from March 8-17. Besides celebrating music and film, SXSW explores the interaction of culture and technology. Few technologies have been more influential on our culture in the last 100 years than the automobile. Autonomy asks, “Will that continue?”

That is but one of many questions raised in the engaging documentary Autonomy.

Canadian journalist and futurist Malcolm Gladwell, who coined the 10,000 Hour Rule, and award-winning director Alex Horwitz created Autonomy, a textbook example of how to do a documentary. It explores the issues around self-driving cars and is intellectually stimulating, educational, balanced and fun to watch.

In the Beginning

Autonomy SXSW

One of 17 films in the SXSW Documentary Spotlight series, Autonomy was inspired by old tech: a magazine. In 2017, Car and Driver published a special edition, edited by Gladwell, exploring driverless cars. They led with a bad pun: “Auto No Mo’ Us”. The film avoids the pun but does explore the difficulties involved with getting people out from behind the wheel.

A Little History

New technology is scary to most people. The film relates the story of a gentleman, in 1899, who helped a lady onto a trolley car. He stepped back out of the trolley onto the street and was hit by a taxi. The next day the headline in the newspaper read, “The Automobile has Tasted Blood”.

Now, we are frightened by stories of driverless cars killing pedestrians. Just Google “driverless car death.” But is this fair?

We no longer fear cars, generally, when they’re driven by sober humans. We love our cars. There are car clubs everywhere for all varieties of automobiles. Not all tech is loved like this. When was the last time you were invited to a meeting of your buddy’s vacuum cleaner club?

The film explores how the automobile has given us fun and freedom. It spends time at a car club, shows a driver drifting a car in a parking lot. Then it shows a driverless car doing the same thing – but what fun is that?

The filmmakers conducted interviews with Japanese and German engineers who did groundbreaking research into driverless car technology. The film also explores where the technology can go tomorrow.


Autonomy looks at issues that had never occurred to me, such as, if you buy or are riding in a driverless car, and the car hits somebody, whose insurance comes into play? Yours? The manufacturer’s? The programmer of the camera? This is unexplored territory.

Autonomy SXSW

We fear being hit by a driverless car. Yet everyday there are accidents, many of them fatal, caused by cars with human drivers. Why are we not worried about those?

The filmmakers also ask more fun questions, such as how will driverless cars be configured? They share concepts such as a car with a table in the middle which you and your friends could sit around while traveling to your destination. We see a design for a car with a bed in it so you could catch a few winks on your way to wherever. This gives a whole new meaning to “asleep at the wheel.”

The questions then get broader. If you could just walk up to a curb, hail a driverless car, and insert your credit card, why would you need to own a car?

If people stopped owning cars, what would our cities, currently configured with huge parking structures and optimized for rush hour traffic, evolve into?

Your driverless car would be controlled by software. If the app on your phone stops working, nobody dies. What if the app running your car stops working?

Going Forward

Showing contrasts and asking questions like those above, while maintaining a sense of humor, are the strengths of this film. It is easy for a film involving a controversial issue to come down so heavily on one side that it becomes propaganda. Autonomy does not fall into this trap.

If you are interested in seeing the film, or finding out more about your possible autonomy, check out the film’s website.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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