The Fuse

Larry Burns: Autonomous Vehicles Won’t Happen in a Vacuum

by Leslie Hayward | October 14, 2015

In a newsmaker event today at the National Press Club, Larry Burns, former Corporate Vice President of Research and Development for General Motors, discussed how autonomous vehicles will reshape the American transportation system—but only within the context of an evolving system of connected cars and carsharing.

The automobile hasn’t fundamentally changed in over 100 years, even as computing and mobile phone technologies have transformed the modern world.

Burns noted that the automobile hasn’t fundamentally changed in over 100 years, even as computing and mobile phone technologies have transformed the modern world. He argued that the current transportation system imposes unacceptable costs in the form of congestion, inefficient land use, and millions of traffic deaths per year—but challenges in the energy and transportation sectors aren’t examined simultaneously, and that solutions are often applied “myopically.”

That’s why, according to Burns, who was head of GM’s alternative and advanced research divisions for many years, autonomous solutions won’t happen in a vacuum.

“Driverless cars are getting a lot of exciting attention, but it’s more about marrying driverless cars with connected cars, and car or ride-sharing—Uber, Lyft, Zipcar—and you also combine it with tailored design of the vehicle. That’s when transformative change can occur.”

Burns cited a number of statistics demonstrating the current inefficiencies of the system. Ninety percent of trips taken are one or two people, but cars are designed to seat four to five. Most cars have the capacity to travel well over 100 miles per hour, even though the vast majority of driving occurs at below 25 miles per hour. Furthermore, while the average car weighs 2,000-3,000 pounds, most people weigh less than 200 pounds, meaning that only one percent of every gallon of gasoline burned is necessary to move the driver.

In a world where vehicles are available on demand, rather than individually owned, a right-sizing of the vehicle fleet could lead to the emergence of many vehicles for personal trips that are 1,000 pounds or less. Such a scenario would not only triple fuel savings, it would also make electric vehicles far more commonplace.

In Burns’ view, the result of these innovations is a system that is “safer, more convenient, more productive, and more personal.”

When asked if vehicle ownership becomes obsolete in the world of the autonomous vehicle, Burns argues for a “shared business model” underpinning a new age of mobility. Personal vehicle ownership wouldn’t necessarily be obsolete, but drivers could take their own car to work before handing it over for ridesharing for the day. Such a system contributes to overall system efficiency, while saving money for all participants.

What’s not to like? Of course, there are outstanding questions about issues such as personal or company liability, and when the technology will meet critical safety thresholds.

Complete safety in any scenario can never be guaranteed.

“The real key is to recognize that with all technology, you go through a learning process. We need the opportunity to take first generation vehicles and test them in different environments and learn about the technology. That could be in controlled settings, like campuses. But most importantly, these cars are engineered to be ‘fail operational.’ That means that if their GPS signal cuts out, they’ve already downloaded enough information about the road ahead that they can safely pull to the side,” Burns said in a conversation with The Fuse. Of course, he added, complete safety in any scenario can never be guaranteed. But Burns cited the statistic that up to 90 percent of accidents on the road could be eliminated by autonomous vehicles.

Regarding applications for non-transportation industries, Burns was joined at the Press Club by Lynn Liddle, Executive Vice President of Domino’s Pizza. Liddle who spoke about the fact that while Domino’s has been forward thinking on computing and mobile technology, an evolution of the transportation sector creates new opportunities for the company.

Liddle noted that Domino’s delivery drivers cover 10 million miles a week in the U.S. alone—or half a billion miles per year. “We are slowly looking at more efficient ways to deliver pizza. Some of our franchises use electric vehicles. We think autonomous vehicles offer an opportunity for us in terms of safety and convenience. A fully automated vehicle wouldn’t get lost, so it’s more convenient for our customers, and very practical. We’re also interested in technologies that can enable us to map routes to make them more efficient.”

But Liddle added that while the benefits are appealing, the biggest concern is cost. “Forty percent of Domino’s franchise owners only own one store. So it has to work for small business—we have to get to the point where it’s affordable.”

On that issue, Burns was bullish, arguing that even if autonomous vehicle technology isn’t expensive, vehicle costs are likely to be shared, and per-mile costs were likely to be incredibly small. Additional cost saving would come over time with scale.

In terms of policy prescriptions, Larry Burns was clear on two points. First, autonomous vehicles need to come sooner rather than later. He noted: “1.2 million people per year die on roadways worldwide. Experts tell us we can reduce 90 percent of vehicle crashes with this technology. If we replace the fleet one day sooner, we save 3,000 lives.” Thus, policy needs to expedite rather than impede the development of autonomous vehicle technology.

Second, testing must be allowed on public roads to enable development of a technology that is responsive in real-world conditions that can’t be recreated in a lab. “In one of Google’s test drives, the car encountered a woman in an electric wheelchair speeding out into the middle of the road, holding a broom, chasing a duck. How often do you see that?”

Finally, the fact that Google and other new entrants into the automotive space are some of the strongest players on this new technology was called into question. Burns was asked, “Is the future already owned by Google, Apple, and Tesla, or can incumbents (traditional automakers) adjust to this disruption?” Burns’ answer was simple: “They have to.”