Lawrence D. Burns delivers keynote address at the 2019 SAE Government Industry Meeting. (Bill Visnic)

New-mobility visionary Burns: automated driving ‘getting close’

Asserting that the potential for outsized economic and social gains connected with automated driving are huge, Lawrence D. Burns, delivering a keynote address at this week’s SAE Government Industry Meeting in Washington, DC, said “I do believe we’re getting close” to commercialization of vehicles with SAE Level 4 autonomy.

Burns, the former vice president of research, development and planning at General Motors and widely regarded futurist who has since 2011 advised automated-driving pioneer Waymo, said in the speech that automated driving has the potential to release individuals from the unnecessary fiscal burden of vehicle ownership and drastically reduce the cost of shipping goods by ground.

Burns, who along with Christopher Shulgan co-authored the recent book, “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How it Will Reshape Our World” (Harper Collins), called autonomous vehicles “inevitable,” and added, “we just need to keep continuing to learn.”

Staying the course

Burns said in the address that for the past 132 years, drivers of private vehicles have accepted outsized ownership costs and inconveniences such as refueling and securing parking—financial and time expenses that can be greatly reduced in an autonomous-vehicle (AV) future that sees individuals subscribe to transportation as a service rather than own a vehicle.

Burns’ statistics make a strong case for his position. He said that 70% of private-vehicle trips in the U.S. are of less than 8 mi (12.9 km) and 80% are with one or two occupants. Average city speeds now are in the 20-30 mph (32-48 km/h) range, although every vehicle is built to sustain much higher speeds. He suggests that battery-electric AVs designed for a 300,000-mile (482,000-km) service life can optimize the cost-per-mile equation and make pointless the cost and hassle of personal-vehicle ownership.

“We’re [currently] paying an enormous amount” for the convenience and spontaneity of private-vehicle ownership, he said.

He said Americans currently drive about three trillion miles per year and although there have been highly-publicized accidents and fatalities involving automated vehicles being tested on public roads, Burns added that developers should “stay the course,” on public-road testing because “the societal benefits [of automated driving] are huge.” And not just for individual owners: he said automated-driving technology can slash the cost-per-mile for commercial trucking by 50%.

Another widely-discussed “cost” of non-automated driving that will go away: crashes. Burns projects that 90% of all vehicle crashes can be eliminated. Further, of the crashes that do happen, “the physics can be greatly reduced,” so that occupant and property damage are minimal.

Burns also doesn’t directly shy away from autonomy’s eternal question of when it will be implemented. “It will be ‘proven’ in five years,” he said, with adoption on a variable timeline that sees an initial generation of AV operation in tightly geo-fenced routes in high-population areas. “Certainly in generation one, you’re not going to get rid of your car,” he concedes.

A second generation will expand the service areas of and accessibility to automated vehicles, he said, on the way to a “mature” phase of technology development similar to how many new automotive technologies have been implemented in the past.

“Ultimately, the age of mobility will eliminate the need for personal-car ownership,” Burns declared.

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