How the Quest for Self-Driving Cars Will Reshape Our World

An Interview with Lawrence D. Burns, author of Autonomy

As both an automotive and tech world insider, Dr. Lawrence D. Burns is well positioned to chronicle the pursuit of inventing self-driving cars and share a vision about how they will transform our world.

Larry is a former corporate vice president of research, development and planning at General Motors and longtime advisor to the Google self-driving project (now Waymo). In his book, called Autonomy, he tells the story of maverick engineers and computer experts who are creating the autonomous vehicle revolution.

Larry will be a keynote speaker at the annual World Safety Summit on Autonomous Technology.  We connected with him to discuss the safety imperative in autonomous vehicle success, the role of consumer education in bringing self-driving technology to market, and what he will be discussing during his presentation at the upcoming summit.

VL: In your book, you discuss the coming of a “new age of automobility,” created by driverless, electric vehicles. What are the top societal benefits you expect will result from this new age?

Lawrence Burns: The “age of automobility” involves autonomous electric vehicles used in transportation services and is destined to displace the over century-old age of automobiles, which is based on human-driven combustion vehicles sold primarily to individuals. 

Automobility promises better mobility and logistics experiences at dramatically lower consumer cost.  It also has the potential to

  • eliminate over 90% of global roadway fatalities
  • reduce oil demand for transportation by over 80%
  • provide better accessibility to people who cannot own/operate a car
  • mitigate climate change and air pollution impacts of transportation
  • repurpose substantial amounts of land/structures used for parking
  • increase roadway throughput significantly

I believe the biggest risk associated with automobility is not realizing its profound and compelling societal opportunities as soon as we safely can.  For example, if we realize the full safety potential of autonomous vehicles just one day sooner, we will save 3000 lives (1.3 M global roadway fatalities per year X 90% ¸ 365 days per year).

VL: The quest for self-driving cars has already disrupted the auto world. A couple of examples are the growing number of driver assistance features in cars and pilot programs for self-driving taxi services. What new, emerging changes do you see on the near-term horizon?

Burns: Automobility is on the verge of commercialization and is destined to grow to maturity through generational learning cycles.  Big ideas have been conceived, fascinating concepts have been proven and prototype services have been demonstrated.  This impressive progress has positioned several companies close to launching first generation automobility services in line with the capabilities of their autonomous driving systems.

I see continued learning on the horizon for autonomous vehicles.  Engineers make what’s possible real through product development and commercial learning cycles.  Such learning is the key to transformational change.

As we learn, we must accept that transformational change does not follow a tidy, predictable path. There are always a lot of false starts, a lot of set-backs, a lot of failures and a lot of players who can’t stay in the game.  It’s like running a marathon in the fog with an unknown route and unknown terrain.  However, if like automobility, a new product or service promises to deliver compelling benefits at a competitive price and profitable cost, then engineers and marketers find a path through the hazy innovation maze that leads to large-scale commercial success.  Such quests require vision, purpose, courage, knowledge, patience, deep-pockets and adaptability.  There are rarely any short-cuts.

VL: What steps do companies need to take to educate the public about the current limitations and future benefits self-driving technology?

Burns: I wrote Autonomy to help accelerate the profound consumer and societal benefits of automobility.  My goal was to provide people with a common understanding of how autonomous vehicles came about and how they will change their lives. My hope is that this common understanding will lead to collective will which is fundamental to transformational change.

Business leaders, educators, elected officials and regulators also need to educate the public about what is possible with autonomous vehicles and how this future can be realized while properly managing safety risks. My concern is that many journalists and analysts present the development of AVs as a race and are hyperventilating like sportscasters over every change in position.  While this might help sell stories and advice, developing driverless cars is a quest, not a race …. a marathon, not a sprint.  It is a long arduous journey like other transformational changes that have shaped our world. The public needs to understand this reality and that our inevitable transportation future will be fundamentally better than the past in terms of consumer value, user experience, vehicle design, business model and societal impacts. 

VL: How important is having a safety culture to an autonomous vehicle company?

Burns: A safety culture is essential.  Safety must be the overriding priority for everyone involved with autonomous vehicles. While I was at General Motors in the 1990s, we had several tragic and unacceptable fatalities in our manufacturing facilities.  In response, GM’s CEO Jack Smith benchmarked world leading companies in workforce safety like DuPont and Alcoa and deployed their processes.  At the heart was creating a safety culture.  Jack made workforce safety an over-riding priority for GM.  We had metrics and targets and trained everyone.  And it worked remarkably fast.  We soon became a benchmark company.   

I believe the automobility safety leader will become the automobility market leader because the safety leader will be able to serve more use cases and learn faster than competitors, and its system will make more confident/expedient/refined autonomous driving decisions resulting in better ride experiences.  As such, the safety leader should realize a larger trip market share and higher pricing.  This means the quest for AV leadership becomes the quest for safety leadership, which is exactly the way it should be….market forces driving safety and safety driving market performance.

VL: Discuss what you see as lidar technology’s value to vehicle autonomy and driver assistance?

Burns: As I describe in Autonomy, Velodyne’s lidar changed the game and enabled the critical learning that occurred during the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge and beyond.  Lidar technology continues to be essential as autonomous driving system developers work to expand the use cases their systems can handle.  With safety as the over-riding priority, it is essential to sense and perceive as much as we possibly can to handle the long tail of unusual driving challenges that remain to be addressed.  Current and future generation lidar technology is core to realizing the full potential of automobility.   

VL: At the World Safety Summit, attendees will have the opportunity to ride in an autonomous vehicle – which will probably be a first for many people. In your book, you described your first ride in a Google self-driving car back in 2010, and how your emotions evolved from “nervous” to being “at ease” in a way you never felt before in a car. Any words of advice for summit attendees who will experience their first ride in an autonomous vehicle?

Burns: Yes!  Enjoy the ride and focus on what autonomous cars can already do today, not just on what remains to be done.  Every time I ride in a driverless car I am blown away by its capability, especially relative to where the technology stood a decade ago.

VL: Can you share a preview of what you will be discussing in your keynote at the World Safety Summit? Burns:  Following the launch of Autonomy, I decided to take a deep breath and reflect on the current state of automobility, how its full potential will be realized and its likely mature features.  I will share what I concluded about the road to automobility and how this road will lead us safely to a compelling future through learning.

For Velodyne Lidar products click HERE.

Share this article