Larry Burns & the Creation of the Future of Transportation

You would think that a guy who retired from GM after 40 years would kick back in a cottage in northern Michigan or elsewhere. But not Larry Burns. Just as when he was running R&D at GM, he continues, now as an adviser to Waymo, to transform transportation.

Back in 1993, NBC broadcast Seinfeld—bookended by Wings and Fraiser—as part of its “Must See TV.” And one Thursday night, having watched Seinfeld, he went to bed and woke up, realizing that he was deaf. As he writes in Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How It Will Reshape the World (harpercollins.com), a book he co-authored with Christopher Shulgan, Lawrence D. Burns, who was in 1993 in charge of resource planning and production control for the GM Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac Group (better known back then simply as “BOC,” just as Burns was and is better known as “Larry”), writes, “I was pretty freaked out by the possibility that the last thing I’d ever hear as the bickering of Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine.” Burns, who has an undergraduate degree from General Motors Institute (“GMI,” now known as “Kettering University”), a master’s from the University of Michigan and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, received a cochlear implant the following year (he was one of the first thousand people to do so), and as he puts it, “What made me the optimistic technologist that I am today was the cochlear implant. . . .”

It had another effect on him, as well: “living deaf for a year helped me better understand why disabled people strive so hard to be independent. Like everyone, they value their freedom—their autonomy.”

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Burns started at GMI in 1969. It operates on the co-op model. Burns retired from General Motors at age 58 in July 2009. He held the title “vice president, research and development and strategic planning.” He was appointed to the position in 1998 by then-president and CEO Rick Wagoner. When announcing Burns’ retirement, the official statement from GM included the observation: “At GM, he has personally championed the electrification of the vehicle, connected vehicle technology, fuel cells, and a series of innovative advanced technology concept vehicles.”

That phrase “personally championed” is notable inasmuch as Burns was way ahead of the curve as compared to many of his colleagues at General Motors back then. One can only imagine how Burns must have been perceived at executive meetings when he was promoting things like fuel cells to power vehicles.

Or consider this, from April 2009, when Burns unveiled Project P.U.M.A. in New York, with the acronym standing for “Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility.) P.U.M.A. is a pod that handles two, possibly three at a pinch, people. It is an electric vehicle with dual wheel motors powered by a lithium-ion battery pack: dual wheel motors because the vehicle, which was developed along with Segway, has two wheels. Its top speed is 35 mph and its range is 35 miles. The vehicle has V2X connectivity.

When the vehicle was introduced, Burns said, “Project P.U.M.A. represents a unique solution to moving about and interacting in cities, where more than half of the world’s people live. Imagine small, nimble vehicles that know where other moving objects are and avoid running into them. Now, connect those vehicles in an Internet-like web and you can greatly enhance the ability of people to move through cities, find places to park and connect to their social and business networks.”

Remember: this was 2009. The auto industry in the U.S. wasn’t exactly doing particularly well back then. An objective was keeping the lights on and the factories operating, not taking a flyer on some sort of transportation devices.

Still, by 2010 Project P.U.M.A. became the EN-V—or “Electric Networked-Vehicle”—and was demonstrated at the SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.)-GM pavilion at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai. Burns’ vision came to life. At least as a concept in three variants, Jiao (Pride), Miao (Magic) and Xiao (Laugh). The auto industry in China then, as now, was rather, well, robust.

After his retirement, Burns joined the Earth Institute at Columbia University and commenced research on transportation systems, something that he’d long been interested in. He also joined, in 2010, the engineering school of The University of Michigan. Burns and a colleague, Bill Jordan, created math models to determine that number of vehicles that would be required in order to provide people in a city like Ann Arbor (population, 285,000) with access to transportation with a wait time of two minutes or less. When they were doing the work the inhabitants of Ann Arbor had 200,000 personally owned vehicles. As he recounts in Autonomy, “To provide nearly instantaneous access for trips in and around Ann Arbor, even during rush hours, the city would require a shared fleet of just 18,000 vehicles.”

Burns, of course, was thinking back then in the context of autonomous vehicles. What’s more, he was thinking about vehicles like the EN-V. He and one of his colleagues that worked on Project P.U.M.A. with him at GM, Chris Borroni-Bird, calculated that an EN-V could be manufactured for $7,500, but for purposes of his later transportation costs, he upped that to $10,000, then an additional $10,000 to make it autonomous. That brought the cost to $20,000 per vehicle, but then they calculated the cost per miles of use, which predicated on the 250,000 miles that a taxicab runs, resulted in a “cost on the order of $0.20 per loaded vehicle mile.” Given that they estimated that it costs $1.50 per mile for owning and operating a car, that is a cost differential of $1.30 per mile.

Burns writes, “Multiplying the $1.30 per mile savings by the 3 trillion miles Americans drive annually revealed how much the mobility disruption stood to save drivers in our country. The new age of automobility could reduce America’s $4.5 trillion per year mobility bill by $3.9 trillion per year.”

Clearly, the man who had “championed the electrification of the vehicle, connected vehicle technology” was on to something.

Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, attended the University of Michigan (1991 to 1995; Page’s grandfather had worked in Flint, at the Chevy plant there. After the DARPA Urban Challenge in that was held in late 2007 (Burns: “The rules required the robots [i.e., self-driving vehicles to drive sixty miles in six hours through an urban environment while obeying the rules of the California Driver Handbook. The challenge would require that the robot navigate a standard North American parking lot well enough to be able to maneuver into an available space. While neither pedestrian nor cyclists would be allowed on the course, the robots would have to navigate one of the most difficult elements of the driving for human operators—deciding how to proceed through an all-way-stop intersection where other drivers have arrived at about the same time.”), Page and Sergey Brin, the other Google founder, established a program called “Chauffeur.” The challenge had been won by Tartan Racing out of Carnegie Mellon with a 2007 Chevy Tahoe. Chris Urmson was on the team. The previous DARPA race, the second Grand Challenge, had been run in 2007 and was won by a team out of Stanford (with a Volkswagen Touareg); that team included Sebastian Thrun.

In 2010, Thrun, who was then project leader for Chauffeur at Google, and Urmson, then engineering lead, recruited Larry Burns to become an adviser on the program. Although Chauffeur has become Waymo (waymo.com) and Thrun and Urmson have both moved on, Burns is still advising.

I’ve had the honor of knowing Burns since about the turn of the century, back when he was actively promoting fuel cell technology within GM as an alternative to fossil fuels, and the publication of Autonomy led me to talk with him about the subject.

“First of all,” Burns said, “I don’t think we’ll ever get to Level 5 and I don’t think that should be the objective.” He was referring to the SAE categorization of levels of autonomy, with Level 5 being the highest, a completely automated vehicle that can go anywhere under any conditions, or as Burns described it, “that it can handle everything that you could possibly ever have happen.”

Burns thinks that the objective should be Level 4, which he says is vehicular operation within “an envelope defined by geography, time of day, day of week, week of month, month of year, traffic density and other things.” Not everything. But plenty of things.

Although Burns is a technologist and while he promotes the safety that can result from more automated vehicles being on the road (from the book: “The safety benefits of self-driving vehicles stood to eliminate at least 90 percent of the 1.3 million roadway fatalities that happened around the world”), he is also a realist, knowing that the technology is going to have to provide economic benefit, that there must be commercialization.

Burns said that he thinks that given flat, straight roads, nice weather, and low traffic conditions, there could be Level 4 operation of over-the-road trucking “almost today.” He noted: “Those types of stretches exist,” he said, citing Nevada, for example. “You could have an autonomous tractor pull the trailer for 500 miles,” he said. When getting to the off-ramp, the driver would take over.

Or he said that low-speed Level 4 vehicles could work well in gated communities.

The fundamental question: “When can you commercialize Level 4 and expand on that?”

It’s not that Level 4 is fully developed. Burns said that there needs to be additional work in a variety of areas, such as on-road learning, where there can be an increasing number of real-world situations captured and analyzed, and further developing sensors that can capture conditions as speeds go up and road conditions become more complex. “There is still more learning to be done for Level 4,” Burns said.

But what are the implications for traditional automotive suppliers? “The ones who are thinking about the business through individual components could be at risk,” Burns answered. “The ones who are thinking about this as an integrated subsystem, the integration of processors and sensors integrated with actuators on the vehicle, I think they’re going to have a role to play.”

Burns said that there are suppliers today “who understand that the electrification and digitalization of the automobile are here in a very big way. They’ll do just fine.”

Then there are others. “The extreme example is that if you’re a steering wheel manufacturer and hear a guy like Burns saying that cars might not need steering wheels, you’re probably nervous. But if you’re a steering systems supplier and understand redundant steering as part of a broader ecosystem, then you can be a player.”

Burns said that there are significant changes that will be driven as there is a move to a transportation service business rather than personal car ownership: “When you develop a car today you try to create a compelling design and an optimized price point so that when a person walks into a dealership, they fall in love with the car.

“Now when you get to transportation as a service model, it is not the initial price point but it is getting the 300,000-mile life out of your depreciated asset and understanding the other cost components per mile, which include energy and maintenance.”

So the vehicle is not going to be designed to evoke passion but engineered to provide performance, and the performance is not like that of a Hellcat engine but more of the classic Maytag washing machine.

Burns said that given the maintenance advantage of electric vehicles compared to mechanically powered ones—as in fewer moving parts—they can have a better cost per mile. He suggested that electric vehicle penetration may actually be boosted with autonomous services deploying them: “Today the Achilles heel of the electric vehicle is the upfront cost: the first buyer doesn’t want to take that on.” But in the future, the purchaser of the vehicle—which is likely to be an entity, not an individual—is going to be more concerned with the total cost of the vehicle, the last mile, not the first.

There will not likely be a monostyle for vehicles, with there being nothing but a series of scaled pods. (Remember Jiao, Miao and Xiao? Each of them has a distinctive design.) “As this future plays out,” Burns said, “vehicles purposefully designed for tailored applications are going to make a whole lot of sense.” There will be vehicles for the dense urban areas. There will be vehicles for those who want a premium experience. There will be vehicles for those who are looking for economy.

Still, there will be massive changes as there is a move from the long-existing ownership model to one where transportation is considered more of a service. “The basis of competition is going to be the total experience of the people using the autonomous transportation system. It’s not just safety and how many places I can go from and to but a lot about whether I feel better getting out of the vehicle than I did getting into it.

“A whole new world of design and engineering is going to emerge.”

This is not all about massaging seats and scented air and infotainment screens the size of a body side.

Burns pointed out that it could be as simple as anticipating and avoiding or accommodating for potholes. It starts with accurate digital maps and capable sensors, then goes through, say, a magnetorheological system that deals with the jarring so that no one in the vehicle even knows the pothole was hit.

A key driver of all of this is economics. Burns cited the three-trillion U.S. miles driven each year. “If I can get one cent a mile more than you and each of us has 10 percent of the three trillion, I get three billion more.”

Then there is something that OEMs have spent what is probably billions of dollars on throughout the history of the industry: their brands. “Will the car brand matter?” Burns asked, rhetorically. “That is something the boards of every major auto company needs to be thinking about.”

He added: “Brands do matter, but is a brand like Chevrolet or Ford in this world of the mobility revolution as powerful as if it is something that has Apple, Amazon or Alphabet standing behind it?”

The question isn’t if autonomous technology is going to emerge. It is not even really when. “It has arrived,” Burns said. “This is real.”

But it isn’t mainstream. Yet. “I would be disappointed if it didn’t happen within 10 years.”

Will it happen? “That will be driven by the value propositions.”

The optimistic technologist seems confident the technology will be capable of getting the job done.