Larry Burns & Opportunities Lost

It's unfortunate that more automotive/mobility innovation didn’t make it to the street while Burns was at GM. General Motors could have been Tesla before that company became what it has.

I was pleased to learn Larry Burns, former R&D chief at General Motors and advocate for autonomous mobility, had written a new book titled Autonomy. While Burns is well known for being extremely smart, I was interested in learning more about his insights–given that he enjoys better access to top automotive and big tech leaders than I do. Burns is one of the most impressive engineering minds on the planet. He is simply a gift to the world.

I’ve enjoyed seeing Burns make projections over the years about the benefits for mass scale automated vehicle (AV) deployment. I have wondered what insights he has from working with Larry Page and Google, or if he’d broadened his vision, and met with public transit leaders about AVs. He has also been working with a new community developer in Florida, and I wondered about his learnings there. I wish there was more of that in Autonomy. But there isn’t.

This book is mainly an accounting of how the new autonomous mobility revolution began–before it has actually started. I know, that sounds odd. It’s like a book on how the first man walked on the moon, before his rocket blasted off from Earth. Or a book on the historic development of the Model T, before the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.

Arguably, we are still waiting for AVs.

Burns was vice president, research and development and strategic planning at GM from 1998 until 2009, when he retired. One of the things that was launched while he was at GM was a fuel-cell show car named the “Autonomy,” which Burns suggested would reinvent the automobile. It didn’t. The clever skateboard design has gone apparently nowhere. What’s more, it didn’t address the issue of too many cars, most of which are too big. [Editor’s note: but the personal transportation device that GM—under Burns’ direction—developed with Segway, the Electric Networked-Vehicle (EN-V), which was demonstrated at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, did.]

I find it somewhat unfortunate that more automotive/mobility innovation didn’t make it to the street while Burns was at GM. General Motors could have been Tesla before that company became what it has, but the GM electric vehicle, the EV1, was launched, had a three-year run (1996 to 1999), then was removed from the market. GM could have created the first mass-market, successful gas-electric hybrid, but it didn’t: Toyota did with the Prius.

One of the ironies in the book—presumably unintended—was that Burns had to go to the Mojave Desert to watch the DARPA Grand Challenge that pitted teams of college students against one another in autonomous vehicle technology when he was heading up R&D at the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. Couldn’t GM itself have created Grand Challenges of its own back then and actually launch the commercialized autonomous vehicle revolution?

But Burns was in an organization with entrenched interests that seemed more dedicated to protecting their status quo than trying to create the future.

The day I wrote this piece General Motors announced that there would be three assembly plants and two powertrain plants that would be “unallocated” in 2019, which is probably a euphemism for “closed.” Potentially some 14,000 people will lose their jobs as a result.

That is very sad. While some might say that this is a result of the massive contraction in sedan sales, I see this simply as disruption from the new age of digital mobility—an age that I thought would have arrived sooner.

 

Reinventing mobility is an enormous topic. Larry Burns is a meaningful contributor to this future. But I consider Burns’ vision somewhat limited, and I don’t think his will teach as much as you need to know about the coming autonomous mobility revolution.