Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World
August 29, 2018
Lawrence D. Burns went from the executive suites of Detroit to advise Silicon Valley, and uses that breadth of experience to tell the story of the quest for, and importance of, driverless cars.
I remember the very first time I heard of Zipcar, the car-sharing company cofounded by Robin Chase in the year 2000. I couldn't really see myself using the service here in Milwaukee at the time, where parking isn't usually a problem and a really bad rush hour means I get home in seventeen minutes instead of seven. But, having read about it just before my (future) wife and I took a trip to San Francisco, I immediately saw it's applicability while stuck for over an hour on the Bay Bridge to visit friends in Oakland, and spending an equally obscene amount of time searching for parking almost everywhere we went. And, after my first trip to Los Angeles a few years later, I never wanted to see a car again.
Lawrence D. Burns, in a new book written with Christopher Shulgan, Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World, that hit bookstores yesterday, quotes one of our favorite books of the past few years—Edward Humes's Door to Door—to explain the crux of the problem: "In almost every way imaginable," Humes wrote, "the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane." Burns explains:
In 2016 alone, 37,461 Americans were killed in auto crashes, contributing to make unintentional injuries the leading cause of death for Americans in the first half of life.
Using your vehicle just 5 percent of the time means that you have to figure out a place to store them the other 95 percent. So, you need to devote a good chunk of your home to a garage (and driveway), and not only that—where you work has to reserve a space for your car, too. As does your favorite shopping mall, your dentist's office, the stadium for your favorite sports team, your city's streets—the list goes on. So we pave over big swathes of valuable real estate in our cities …
I can't even tell you the first time I heard of self-driving vehicles, as I'm sure I thought it too absurd an idea to give much thought to. But they have become a reality sooner than most thought possible, and are likely to proliferate on our streets more quickly than most of us can imagine. Combined with the idea that Zipcar helped pioneer, that we needn't own a car to have easy access to one, they hold out the prospect of fundamental change to the economy, our autonomy, and to the physical landscape of our urban areas.
Larry Burns, former General Motors' corporate vice president of research, development, and planning—as well as a long-time advisor to Google's self-driving car project—is one of the few who did believe it was possible, and did see this coming, and his history in both Detroit and Silicon Valley makes him better placed than perhaps any other individual to provide an overview of the current situation, the history that led us here, and where it may all be headed.
His wake-up call to the insanity of how cars are manufactured and deployed occurred on September 11th, 2001. Attending an auto show in Germany as a member of Rick Wagoner's thirteen-person strategy board on that day, he was asked by GM security to drop everything and "proceed to a specific conference room." He arrived to a TV showing one of the World Trade Center towers on fire, and just minutes later "watched a jetliner fly into the second tower." Stuck in Germany for three days as air traffic over the U.S. was halted, he
Many theories exist to explain why the attacks occurred. But it's impossible to ignore that one contributing factor was U.S. dependence on oil imported from the Middle East. […] For me, 9/11 screamed that the status quo of the auto industry, dominated as it was by gas-powered combustion engines, was unacceptable. And thanks to my job leading GM's R&D, I was in a position to do something about this.
And he did for a time, unveiling the "now renowned GM Autonomy concept car," and attempting to introduce "alternative propulsion systems based on hydrogen fuel cells, advanced batteries and biofuels" to GM's portfolio. Perhaps most important to the story he tells in the book, he also arranged for GM to sponsor Carnegie Mellon's Team Tartan, which pulls the story back to the first self-driving cars. It began, as did the internet and drone technology, with DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was that agency that staged a race for robot cars in the Mojave Desert that first attracted so many of the characters that populate Burns's book. It would come at a fortuitous time in history. DARPA staged the competition, along with two others, in 2004, 2005, and 2007, which attracted the attention of Larry Page, who before embarking on a search-engine project with Sergey Brin at Stanford, had considered pursuing the topic of autonomous vehicles for his graduate work. By the time he turned his attention back to the problem, it would be backed by the nearly limitless Google had to pour into it, just as the rest of the economy and financial system was collapsing, and Detroit was going bankrupt.
Like most everything coming out of Silicon Valley, there is both great promise, and a great displacement of labor in the offing:
It will decrease the cost of long-haul trucking by about 50 percent—a remarkable productivity-improvement opportunity and amplifier of e-commerce growth, and a profoundly upsetting prospect for the millions of employees and small business owners who earn their living as drivers.
Burns doesn't hide the more harrowing aspects of this change, or the hiccups along the way. He discusses the often unpleasant internal politics of the teams pioneering these efforts, the outsized egos and idiosyncratic personalities involved. He dissects the fatal crash of a Tesla S running on Autopilot—"autopilot" being a misnomer he believes contributed to the crash, and led the Israeli company that supplied many of the parts for the self-driving system to end its relationship with the automaker, believing that it was "pushing the envelope in terms of safety." That kind of mixed messaging and recklessness may be the one thing that could slow down the deployment of self-driving technology, but Burns explains how Google's public relations efforts around its own system soon after the crash, highlighting their own safety record (they had been testing their self-driving system for seven years prior to taking it out on the road versus Tesla's seven months) helped fill the void and tamp down what could have been a much large public backlash. (Burns is understandably biased in favor of the Google project he has advised, but I think it is in an intellectually honest way, and I don't think it hinders the book.)
One thing that gives me more hope after reading Burns's account is that, unlike the adversarial relationship the tech community has taken with most other industries they're disrupting, the current relationship between Detroit and Silicon Valley seems to be marked more by cooperation. It did not start out that way, as they were mutually distrustful and disdainful of each other in the early years, but:
Since then, the attitudes on both sides have changed. Now known as Waymo, the former [Google] Chauffer team has come to respect Detroit—just as the auto industry that once derided their work has embraced a future of autonomous mobility on demand. The enmity that once characterized the relationship between Detroit has given was to a spirit of collaboration.
It is for that reason that I have no doubt in Burns's proclamation that "Self-driving cars equipped with electric motors are poised to become the biggest thing to hit the automobile industry since the invention of the automobile itself." It has implications not just for the automobile industry, but for "everything it touches," which, especially in America, is nearly everything. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I couldn't really see myself using such a service here in Milwaukee, where (especially if you live in the city), it's relatively easy to get around. But since becoming a father and a homeowner, I've realized that the long driveway that runs up along the entire length of our property and the garage it leads to take up more than half of the space our children have to play in outside. Considering that wasted real estate, combined with the insurance costs and need to maintain two cars (which I know next to nothing about), and yeah... I could see myself giving up car ownership rather easily. It's a far more reasonable, systemic, and hopefully affordable and inclusive solution to our transportation needs than the scooters that were recently left on our city sidewalks by another Silicon Valley company (discussed in my review of Silicon States). I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops.
In the meantime, Autonomy is as good a guide as you'll find on the developments so far, from perhaps the most qualified person to tell it.
We have 20 copies available.