Lawrence Burns describes himself as an “optimistic technologist” in favor of our autonomous vehicle future.
In the face of doubters and naysayers regarding the pace of deployment and potential positive impact of self-driving cars and trucks, Burns counters confidently with history, economics, and what he calls the transformational opportunity that lies in increased electrification through autonomous vehicle (AV) technology and the adoption of transportation as a service for people, goods, and services.
Perhaps most critically, Burns issues a call to action for health care professionals to consider themselves a group of experts who can advocate for AV adoption sooner, rather than later.
These are the messages Burns shared during “The Eye, The Brain and The Auto,” the eighth world research congress hosted by the Department of Ophthalmology at Henry Ford Health System during October’s Mobility Week Detroit
Burns knows a thing or two about autonomous vehicle technology. His career includes corporate vice president of R&D and planning at General Motors, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, and director of the Program for Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University.
Today, Burns advises mobility companies including Waymo, Peloton Technology, and Kitson & Partners, and just released a book about the history
of driverless vehicles. The book details the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge in 2007, when a team from Carnegie Mellon and General Motors raced a modified GM Tahoe against several other highly-qualified teams to win the fully-autonomous vehicle challenge.
“Google built off of that challenge,” says Burns. “At the same time, Tesla, Uber, and Lyft were coming on the radar, all new players from outside the auto industry. And what is different is their bone-deep understanding of the technology.”
Burns reminded his audience that this innovation sparked on the cusp of the Great Recession, and grew despite some of the darkest days of the automotive industry’s recent history.
Motivated by the transportation-as-a-service business model, rather than the personal ownership model, rideshare companies, digital companies, even legacy vehicle OEMs are converging in what Burns calls the “new age of automobility.”
Lawrence Burns, Ph.D., is the author of “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World."
The downside of personal vehicle ownership
Through an informal poll, Burns quizzed participants about how much they enjoy shopping for, financing, maintaining, washing, fueling, navigating traffic, and parking their individually-owned vehicles.
“For over a century, the automotive industry has assumed we’d put up with all of these negatives, and spend $30,000 to $35,000 on a vehicle that we end up leaving parked for 90 to 95 percent of the time,” Burns says. “It’s remarkable that this business model has sustained for over a century.”
The future is not about the ultimate driving experience, says Burns, but about the ultimate riding experience. “The design challenge becomes such that every time you get out of the vehicle, you feel better than when you got in. How about that? You can social network with your kids, get some work done, take a nap, get some exercise, or whatever. What an exciting design challenge for our young designers,” he says.
From a cost per mile perspective, Burns calls autonomous transportation as a service a “transformational opportunity” to drastically reduce the cost of mobility for those who need it most. While at Columbia University, Burns studied
today’s vehicle cost per mile and determined that the average middle class driver spends 80 cents per mile, including time costs due to unproductivity, on transportation. He estimates that lighter weight, electrified, driverless, shared vehicle models can reduce that cost to 20 cents per mile, creating a $4 trillion disruption opportunity for the transportation industry.
Impacting our health -- and health care delivery
The positive disruption to the health care industry is even more substantial, says Burns. He shares these impacts when health care and autonomous technology converge:
- A reduction in the number of road fatalities. Worldwide, this amounts to 1.3 million people, with the U.S. portion contributing 3,000 lives each day. Burns shares that with 93 to 94 percent of accidents attributed to human error, a fact he is quick to point out to those who fear letting technology get ahead of us. “Our biggest risk with autonomous vehicles is not realizing their full potential as soon as possible,” he says. “If we can get crashes eliminated one day sooner, we will save 3,000 lives.”
- Autonomous mobility will result in better access to health care. Although disadvantaged individuals may be able to get to appointments for surgery or other procedures, they are not always able to attend follow-up visits as easily. This could change through self-driving shuttles or other easily-accessible transportation services that work door-to-door. “Transportation isn’t servicing the elderly, the disabled, and the poor as well as it can,” says Burns.
- Mobility will allow better access to education. “Those in this room will agree that there is a positive correlation between education and individual health status,” says Burns.
- Better respiratory health could result from different transportation models. Zero-emission electric vehicles can help improve air quality for everyone.
- Mobility can help reduce the risk of climate change. “We don’t fully understand what will happen with regard to bacteria and viruses with an increase in temperature,” says Burns. “It could be that we could mitigate risk from epidemics.”
- A reduction in individual transportation stress could decrease the costs of health care. Road rage and other stressful aspects of driving can decrease when human drivers are not behind the wheel.
- More money can be shifted from transportation to health care and other quality of life expenditures. “The second biggest budget item in most households is transportation at about 19 percent,” says Buns. “[Autonomous vehicles] will free up household resources through lower vehicle costs per mile.”
- When we shift our community focus from vehicles to people, the result is space that is more amenable to bicycling and walking. Space allocated to parking is space not available to retail, shopping, and community gathering spots.
The burning question, Burns concludes, is “when?” While Burns doesn’t anticipate full driverless roads within five years, he does see the move to autonomous vehicles as a “right now story.” With technology available, realized value to consumer, business opportunity, and scalability that can be implemented here in the Detroit region, Burns recognizes we will be seeing a greater shift to the new age of automobility in the three- to five-year range.
“The smart money will go to the future I describe, rather than to the historical model,” Burns says.
The Eye, The Brain & The Auto
“Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World,” by Lawrence D. Burns.
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