8/24/2018 | 3 MINUTE READ

Realizing Autonomy

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The auto industry is at a place the likes of which it hasn’t been for about 100 years.  It's a place where technological forces are transforming what has largely been a mechanical paradigm to one wherein sensors and algorithms are essential.

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The auto industry is at a place the likes of which it hasn’t been for about 100 years. It's a place where technological forces—from electrification to big data—are transforming what has largely been a mechanical paradigm to one wherein sensors and algorithms are essential. It is one where the model of making and selling objects—as in sedans and crossovers and the like—give way to selling services and experiences that are predicated on getting people to where they need to go, when they need to go there, and at a price that is economical.

For many people in the auto industry, people who have been in it for a long time, this is considered if not utter nonsense, then at least just nonsense. “Ain’t gonna happen.”

But it is happening. Now. And it will continue to happen.

Larry Burns was the vice president of R&D at General Motors. He’d gone to the then General Motors Institute as an undergrad, which is pretty much a place that mints auto engineers and executives. He got his master’s at the University of Michigan, a place where transportation is of more than passing interest. And he got his Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley, which put him in the vicinity of Silicon Valley.

Autonomy

Since January 2011 he has been working as a consultant to Google, now Waymo. As he puts it in a book that he wrote along with Christopher Shulgan, Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How It will Reshape Our World (Ecco), ‘For the senior executives of the automotive companies, most of whom lived around Detroit, there was exactly one way to solve the transportation problem: with a car—one that you drove yourself. Detroit was run by car guys who derived daily pleasure from the operation of their automobiles—the thrill that came from depressing the accelerator of a powerful car, or steering through a curving road. It was extraordinarily threatening to people who have grown up in the auto industry to contemplate taking the driver out of the equation. “This is never going to happen—people like driving” industry executives would tell me, again and again. “I know there are people who like driving,” I would respond. “You know what? There were people who liked to ride horses.”’

Which brings to mind Henry Ford’s alleged comment, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Now it is: More cars.

But Burns doesn’t think so.

And in Autonomy how engineers and researchers are transforming the world of automobility into something different—how they’ve struggled and tested, put vehicles on the road, traversed places off road; how the calculations have been run to not only allow vehicles to travel autonomously, but run to determine how all of this can be not merely cost-effective but profitable—is detailed in a fascinating manner because Burns has lived it.

I met Burns many years ago at GM when he was promoting things such as the Autonomy vehicle—the “skateboard” platform that could revolutionize not only what vehicles are like, but how they’re built—and fuel cells. He is one of the brightest, most articulate people I’ve had the honor to know.

I talked with Burns about his book and about the technology behind autonomous driving. I will write about it for the magazine.

But one thing he said at the end of our discussion is important, especially as many people are preparing their students to go back to school.

Burns said that he and Shulgan really hope that a young person, perhaps a ninth grader, pick up Autonomy and read about this fascinating field that holds so much promise. And perhaps that young person will be sufficiently inspired enough to become an engineer or a programmer or technician and become part of it.

If you know such a young person, go buy her or him a copy of the book. (And pick one up for yourself.) You won’t regret it.


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