Tom Vanderbilt is author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do” and “You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.”
The car, notes Lawrence D. Burns in his book “Autonomy,” is “terribly inefficient.” The internal combustion engine converts less than a third of a gallon of gasoline into actual kinetic energy — “the rest . . . is wasted as heat and sound.” And most of the kinetic energy goes to simply moving the (increasingly large) car itself. “Only about 5 percent of the gasoline energy . . . is used to move the driver,” Burns writes. Most people drive to work alone, in cars with too much capacity and engine power for that purpose. Then there’s the fact that most cars sit unused 95 percent of the time. Not to mention the societal costs in death and injuries, the environmental costs of the cars themselves, and the infrastructure supporting all this inefficiency. If this sounds “insane,” as one observer put it, Burns reports that he “couldn’t agree more.”
This might read like the buzzkill PowerPoint of some progressive transportation think tank analyst. But Burns was, for many years, a vice president at General Motors, whose workforce, he points out, once exceeded the combined population of Delaware and Nevada and whose fortunes were intrinsically yoked to the country at large.
Burns did eventually go to work for a think tank — he’s the director of Columbia University’s Program on Sustainable Mobility at the Earth Institute — but for much of his life, this Detroit-born-and-bred engineer, schooled at a General Motors-run college before taking his first job with the company, worked firmly within the system, crafting massive 10-year plans and optimizing production processes. But, he admits, he “never felt like a car guy.” He was, at heart, a “mobility guy,” and mobility guys did not necessarily think that single-occupant-driven SUVs (still the bread and butter of the auto industry) were the best way to move the most people around most safely and most efficiently.
The story he sets out to tell in “Autonomy,” aided by the writer Christopher Shulgan, is one of increasing disenchantment with the status quo in Detroit. The car, after all, had barely changed since the Model T: “Gas-fueled, run by an internal-combustion engine, rolling on four rubber tires, with the passengers protected by a windshield and four doors.” Sure, there was plenty of incremental innovation, but the car was an entrenched technology stubborn to change. However, an epiphany was to come — from the desert where teams of roboticists were competing to come up with a way to reduce the number of soldiers dying while driving Humvees. The challenge from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had rival groups working to get their driverless vehicles across the finish line on a course in the Mojave.
Burns later agreed to sponsor a team from Carnegie Mellon as it embarked on the biggest challenge yet: piloting an autonomous vehicle through an urban environment. This is not exactly the realm of “The Right Stuff.” Here we have slow-moving cars bumbling through parking lots and patiently navigating four-way intersections. But you can sense the excitement in Burns, an engineer at heart, as the team works through the night in unheated trailers in Pittsburgh winters on what would eventually be the winning entry: a modified Chevy Tahoe, named Boss, that successfully completed the 60-mile course.
For Burns, this was more than a proof of concept, it was a nascent revolution, the sort of mobility disruption he hoped to see: He longed not only to take the internal combustion engine out of the vehicle but to remove the driver. The concept was launched as the Internet sharing economy took off. Now humans could be freed from parking — cars would do it themselves. And freed from driving — a driverless car ordered online would come pick you up and take you wherever you wanted to go. But, as Burns tells it, the industrial story is a familiar one: brave innovators running up against organization men. Unlike the “move fast and break things” ethos of Silicon Valley, Detroit took years to move from concept to prototype. And the car guys mostly just didn’t get why people would not want to drive. During the Urban Challenge, Burns notes, Google sent a “planeload” of senior executives; GM, by contrast, sent only him. In Silicon Valley, the human driver was regarded as a bug — not a feature — in a car. For decades, the car guys in Detroit had sold cars on the promise that driving was freedom. Now the fear was that robot cars were the beginning of the end of humans. An ad for the 2011 Dodge Charger shows the human-driven vehicle picking up speed as a voiceover intones: “Leader of the human resistance.”
The ad, presumably, was at least partially tongue in cheek, but it does illuminate a shortcoming of “Autonomy.” The book is a passionately argued, you-were-there account of the birth and rise of the autonomous vehicle from an authoritative Detroit voice. Burns, a technological utopianist (and one of the first people to get a cochlear ear implant), makes a number of compelling arguments for why smaller, self-piloted, shared vehicles make sense. But we don’t hear much about that other great engine of the car business: consumer desire. Do people want to be driven? Corporations can be intransigent, for sure, but so can consumers. Seat belts in cars, for example, were introduced almost 70 years ago, but they were quickly abandoned because consumers resisted them, and it took many decades for this standard safety feature of today to gain acceptance. As with seat belts, it may take more than simple availability for consumers to adopt the technology.
And the engineering hurdles are signficant. Making cars drive themselves is, as Uber’s co-founder Travis Kalanick once put it, a “hard problem.” Human transportation, however, can be a wicked problem. Fixing one problem can often lead to unintended others (Uber, which was posited as a way to smooth traffic by reducing car ownership, has arguably taken people off public transit in New York and helped worsen congestion.) And even the much-publicized early fatalities attributed to autonomous vehicles — two Tesla drivers using autopilot and a pedestrian struck by an Uber test vehicle — may have been results of programming decisions made by humans. A larger question, not much discussed in “Autonomy,” is how much risk we are willing to accept to have autonomous vehicles. What role should ethics have in the programming: Do we prize safety over speed and efficiency? And who should be the ultimate arbiters of those decisions?
Burns is right to envision a better future with computer-assisted driving (simply eliminating the possibility of drunken driving would save thousands of lives in the United States alone). But like a parent handing the car keys to a newly licensed teenager, relinquishing autonomy to computers — which also seems inevitable — will come with a curious mixture of hope, fear, regret and more than a few mishaps. “Enjoy the ride,” Burns offers as his final words — but do buckle up.
By Lawrence D. Burns with Christopher Shulgan
356 pp. $27.99