Burns’ unit

Larry Burns is Detroit roy­alty, born and bred into the car busi­ness. It makes him an un­likely evan­ge­list to be preach­ing the end of driv­ing as we know it

Wheels (Australia) - - Fortune Special -

THE FOR­MER boss of Gen­eral Mo­tors Re­search & De­vel­op­ment leans back in his chair and says 130 years of his­tory won’t mean much as the foun­da­tions of the au­to­mo­bile busi­ness come tum­bling down.

Dr Lawrence E. Burns, Larry to his mates, strug­gles to hear with­out his Aus­tralian-in­vented Cochlear im­plants, but when it comes to the fu­ture of the car, he has per­fect vi­sion.

He says you won’t drive it, you prob­a­bly won’t own it and you won’t be need­ing a three-car garage. Yet it will cost you a lot less, im­prove your mo­bil­ity, save time and 3000 lives. That’s how many peo­ple die on the world’s roads. Ev­ery day.

“Ul­ti­mate driv­ing ma­chine to ul­ti­mate rid­ing ma­chine…” says the man who grew up flip­ping burg­ers for shift work­ers at the fam­ily diner in Pon­tiac, Michi­gan, while he stud­ied to be­come an en­gi­neer from the “top of my head to the tips of my toes.”

He should know. For nearly a decade since he quit Gen­eral Mo­tors, dur­ing the dark days of bank­ruptcy, Larry Burns has been at the sharp end of Google’s driver­less car tech­nol­ogy, as the hired “grey­beard auto guy” con­sult­ing to the Sil­i­con Val­ley whizz kids.

Dr Burns speaks with a mis­sion­ary’s zeal about what’s com­ing but brings an en­gi­neer’s per­spec­tive to some of the fan­tasy stuff. This isn’t go­ing to be an­other fly­ing cars sci-fi dream but a fun­da­men­tal dis­rup­tion of ev­ery­thing the car busi­ness has known since the early 20th cen­tury. Ev­ery­thing from man­u­fac­tur­ing to re­tail, to pri­vate own­er­ship will be turned on its head. The car busi­ness has been slow to grasp that re­al­ity. “The at­ti­tude was con­de­scend­ing; a sort of su­per­cil­ious amuse­ment sug­gest­ing Google en­gi­neers were no more than fresh­men or sopho­mores work­ing on a high school sci­ence project,” is how he re­mem­bers one visit to Google HQ in Moun­tain View by GM’S hi­er­ar­chy.

It has taken a while but many in­dus­try lead­ers are now back­ing the Burns phi­los­o­phy that au­ton­omy is at the heart of “a tran­si­tion from a me­chan­i­cal ve­hi­cle to one that is al­most en­tirely elec­tri­cal … [and] is as mo­men­tous as the tran­si­tion from horses to horse­power.

“The in­dus­try has as­sumed for a cen­tury that you are will­ing to buy gas, worry about park­ing, pay for main­te­nance and in­sur­ance, go to the has­sle of buy­ing the thing in the first place – do­ing all that and pay­ing an av­er­age $35,000 per car. I think that world is go­ing to change quite a bit.” And, says Dr Burns, it’s com­ing sooner rather than later. He de­tails the jour­ney in a new book, Au­ton­omy – The Quest to Build the Driver­less Car. He ar­gues this isn’t some mo­tor show dream or a tech­no­log­i­cal cul-de-sac like the ill-fated Google Glass ‘wear­able’ ex­per­i­ment.

The weight of money be­hind the de­vel­op­ment is mon­u­men­tal, a gilt-edged guar­an­tee that au­ton­o­mous driv­ing is about to hap­pen at scale.

Three pow­er­ful trends have con­verged. Soft­ware, elec­tric drive and au­ton­o­mous hard­ware tech­nol­ogy.

Com­bine that with stun­ning ad­vances in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and the idea of trans­porta­tion as a ser­vice rather than a piece of per­sonal prop­erty and you have the busi­ness model of to­mor­row.

Think of it as Uber with­out the driver – at a frac­tion of the cost of own­er­ship.

“So you pull that string – park­ing gets im­pacted, deal­ers get im­pacted, land use and real es­tate gets im­pacted. The en­tire econ­omy gets im­pacted, quite frankly,” says Burns.

“It’s a huge dis­rup­tion … for the peo­ple who drive for a liv­ing but it’s also a dis­rup­tion to the auto in­dus­try be­cause far fewer parts mean far fewer em­ploy­ees in the sup­ply base, or the orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing base.” He is talk­ing the end for in­ter­nal com­bus­tion. “And that,” he says with a smile, “is re­ally im­por­tant to un­der­stand if you are in the car in­dus­try!

“It’s the sim­plic­ity of elec­tric drive: you don’t have

THIS ISN’T SOME MO­TOR SHOW DREAM OR TECH­NO­LOG­I­CAL CUL-DE-SAC

trans­mis­sions, you don’t have ex­haust sys­tems, gas tanks, all those me­chan­i­cal parts in the en­gine and you get rid of all the parts in the driver in­ter­face. Boom! That’s re­ally trans­for­ma­tional.”

Dur­ing his long ca­reer at GM, Larry Burns of­ten clashed with what he called “the car guys” – ex­em­pli­fied by the out­sized fig­ure of prod­uct supremo Bob Lutz. A key pas­sage from Burns’ book is re­veal­ing. “The pro­to­typ­i­cal car guy was a blus­ter­ing, sil­ver haired ex­ec­u­tive named Bob Lutz, a cigar chomp­ing he­li­copter pi­lot who ran GM’S prod­uct de­vel­op­ment … and while he did, never failed to be sur­rounded at in­dus­try events by a clutch of fawn­ing me­dia.”

Now Burns finds his neme­sis is in full agree­ment that au­ton­o­mous cars are in­evitable.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it – Lutz, the man at GM who tried count­less times to cut the re­search and de­vel­op­ment bud­get I was spend­ing to get ex­actly the fu­ture he de­scribed, had fi­nally come around.”

Burns says the race to re­move the driver won’t be won by Sil­i­con Val­ley trump­ing Detroit. “It’s big­ger than that. You need both...” He says Google brings an ex­traor­di­nar­ily deep knowl­edge of com­puter sci­ence and ro­bot­ics, the best servers in the world, the best map­ping sys­tem in the world and great ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence teams. “It is a fun­da­men­tal shift in what are the core com­pe­ten­cies needed to be a leader in trans­porta­tion… “There’s 130 years of com­bus­tion-based ve­hi­cles that are en­er­gized by oil and hu­man con­trolled – with those con­trols be­ing hy­draulic or elec­tronic pri­mar­ily. Those com­pe­ten­cies were about the in­ter­face to get the ul­ti­mate driv­ing ma­chine. We are go­ing to have in the fu­ture, the ul­ti­mate rid­ing ma­chine.” The big Unique Sell­ing Propo­si­tion for the au­ton­o­mous car ver­sus to­day’s driveras­sis­tance tech­nol­ogy is sim­ple: hu­man driv­ers are the weak link. “Early on the Google team made some key de­ci­sions, one be­ing that if we al­ways keep the driver in the loop, we are never go­ing to be safer than the driver. So they con­cluded that driver as­sists [like adap­tive cruise con­trol] were not con­sis­tent with their goal to elim­i­nate car crashes al­to­gether.”

Burns is an ad­vo­cate for bet­ter mo­bil­ity, in part be­cause of his ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the im­pact that dis­abil­ity can have on a life. He lost his hear­ing, overnight, some 20 years ago.

“Liv­ing deaf for a year helped me bet­ter un­der­stand why dis­abled peo­ple strive so hard to be in­de­pen­dent,” he says, then jokes his Cochlear im­plants are made of the same stuff as au­ton­o­mous cars. “Soft­ware and sen­sors and bat­ter­ies and all that stuff.” The safety is­sue is of­ten cited as a rea­son driver­less cars will never hap­pen.

Burns says Waymo has clocked 10 mil­lion miles on real-world roads with only one at-fault ac­ci­dent – a low-speed fen­der ben­der. It is now test­ing in 25 US cities and run­ning a ride-shar­ing ser­vice in Chan­dler, Ari­zona.

Yet well-pub­li­cised fa­tal­i­ties with Tesla (a semi­au­tonomous sys­tem) and Uber dom­i­nate the head­lines. Per­spec­tive is needed.

“Sadly things go wrong and kill 40,000 Amer­i­cans a year right now,” he says.

At the heart of those 10 mil­lion miles is ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, or ma­chine learn­ing, via neu­ral net­works.

Test cars go out and cap­ture a lot of data. What is learned is eas­ily trans­mit­ted to the rest of the fleet. The mem­ory builds ex­po­nen­tially.

“It’s learn­ing about the edge cases, and to get con­fi­dent we have dealt with the un­usual things. This isn’t about any one sen­sor, not any one en­abling tech­nol­ogy. It’s this com­bi­na­tion with maps, sen­sors, on board pro­ces­sors and soft­ware and the de­vel­op­ment process.” When will it all hap­pen? The hold ups won’t be tech­ni­cal, says Burns, but reg­u­la­tory and of­ten driven by vested in­ter­ests.

Amer­ica buys $500 bil­lion worth of gaso­line a year. Big Oil won’t go qui­etly.

“The thing that keeps me up at night … are the very pow­er­ful voices that have a vested in­ter­est in the 130-yearold au­to­mo­bile road­way trans­porta­tion sys­tem.

“I can cer­tainly see a path­way to not need­ing oil any longer in the trans­porta­tion sec­tor. I hes­i­tate a bit be­cause diesel is a re­ally good way to move [big] loads. So there will be ap­pli­ca­tions there but I think for about 80 per­cent of the oil… we can get off of that.”

And he warns a fu­ture with­out hu­man driv­ers will not be a Utopia. Cy­ber wars and hack­ing are a threat.

“Bear in mind how the great sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers de­picted the In­ter­net be­fore any­one con­sid­ered the medium might also pro­duce In­ter­net trolls, fake news and doxxing. Nev­er­the­less, life will im­prove af­ter mo­bil­ity dis­rup­tion.”

“IF WE AL­WAYS KEEP THE DRIVER IN THE LOOP WE ARE NEVER GO­ING TO BE SAFER” – Dr Larry Burns, ex­pert au­ton­o­mous car con­sul­tant

WORDS PHIL SCOTT

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