PBS Science Show NOVA Shines its Spotlight on Self-Driving Cars
October 23, 2019      

A new documentary produced by Boston’s WGBH provides a very balanced look at the innovations, advantages, and challenges for companies and researchers looking to develop fully autonomous vehicles for our roadways. The film, “Look Who’s Driving,” premieres tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 23), at 9 p.m. on PBS stations nationally.

The film includes interviews with dozens of experts in the field of robotics and computer science – some in academics, and others working for self-driving car companies. Included in the interviews are researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford, and the University of California – Berkeley, as well as companies Zoox, Mobileye, and Torc Robotics, among others.

Chris Schmidt NOVA

Chris Schmidt, co-executive producer, NOVA. Photo: Meredith Nierman

“In some parts of the country, people see [autonomous vehicles] on the road daily,” said Chris Schmidt, the co-executive producer of NOVA at WGBH. “But even in other parts of the country, our viewers are becoming aware of the story, and we wanted to enter the conversation to do what NOVA does best – tell a great story by asking questions about the science and engineering behind the effort to deploy these controversial vehicles.”

Benefits and challenges

The film doesn’t hold back from the controversy – in the opening of the film, viewers are shown footage from the March 2018 accident in Tempe, Ariz., in which a self-driving Uber vehicle with a. safety driver struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the road. Other themes in the film discuss incidents in which Tesla owners were injured or killed through their use of the company’s AutoPilot feature.

The film presents these incidents as a balance to the other side of the story, which is to show all of the potential benefits of self-driving technologies, including being able to provide mobility for seniors (and blind citizens), reducing traffic load on cities (although there are some arguments that self-driving cars may actually increase traffic), and the biggest benefit of all – reducing the number of traffic fatalities that occur each year with human drivers.

Schmidt said during the course of making the film, he was impressed by the engineers and their startup companies. “I found all of them to be very thoughtful about the potential positive and negative impacts of their technology,” he said. “While there’s no doubt that their investors want them to succeed and be profitable, I felt that the primary driver of their work is a desire to solve a tough technical problem impact on the world. They are, if nothing else, idealistic. That’s heartening, considering that what they are up to may end up being disruptive in ways we can’t yet fully grasp.”

In the course of the 52-minute documentary, filmmakers cover many aspects of the technologies around self-driving vehicles – including the early days of the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban challenge, the levels of autonomy, and all of the different challenges for developers. This can include things like weather, perception, machine language, simulation, data labeling, lidar, computer vision, and even just dealing with other bad drivers.

If you’ve followed the development of the technology, the film gives a great overview of things that you likely already know – but it still hits on many different aspects of those challenge that developers face. For a viewer new to the technology, the film doesn’t get too overly technical, and can provide them with a great overview about the state of the industry at the moment.

“I hope [viewers] are entertained by having their curiosity itch scratched, and that when they inevitably see AVs on the road, and likely one day have to decide whether to ride in one, they will be equipped to make smart, informed decisions,” said Schmidt. “It’s all part of NOVA’s mission to tell stories that reveal the power of the way of thinking about the world that we call science – and to arm the public with information and perspectives about the world we live in that will ultimately enhance our collective ability to act with intelligence and wisdom.”

Because the film is just under an hour, Schmidt said they didn’t have time to cover many other aspects and angles of the technology, including issues like regulations and the potential social impact of a world without drivers. “Our first and foremost priority was to examine the cars themselves and assess their strengths and weaknesses,” said Schmidt. “That story was so rich that we just didn’t have time to explore the social impact questions. In any case, that story would be better told once those impacts move from the hypothetical to the real. I guess I’m saying that we reserve the right to revisit the story down the road.”

In addition to airing on PBS stations, the film will be available for viewing at the NOVA website after it airs. The website also includes additional resources and articles around the technology.