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 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Lawrence Burns

GM’s former head of R&D has a bold vision of how the automobile will evolve in the cities of the 21st century.

Nobody doubts that the automobile industry is destined for significant change. Given the imperative of climate change; the challenge of finding cheap, reliable, and secure supplies of petroleum; and the prospect of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world joining the ranks of car buyers, something’s obviously got to give. But what will the future of personal transportation be? And how will we get from here to whatever that is?

Lawrence Burns, the former head of research and development at General Motors Company (GM), has a compelling vision of that future — specifically, what the future of automobiles might look like in cities, where 50 percent of the world’s population lives today, and where an ever-increasing percentage will live in the future.

Burns’s vision builds on changes that are already under way and seem likely to continue, such as the trend toward smaller cars, the increasing use of onboard computers, and the development of alternative fuels. But it goes much further. Burns thinks cars will be way smaller and lighter — 75 percent lighter, with 90 percent fewer parts — and that they will be connected by a weblike communications infrastructure, which will enable a range of new driving capabilities, conveniences, and features. In this future automotive landscape, Burns predicts that the energy problems we face today will diminish dramatically, as will many of the problems of urban congestion and road safety.

But it won’t be primarily for those reasons that these ultra-small cars will succeed, in his view. They will significantly improve the fundamental value proposition that made automobiles wildly popular in the 20th century: their ability to enable us to go wherever we want, whenever we feel like going there, in an affordable manner.

One of the reasons Burns’s ideas are so interesting is that he’s a car guy, first and foremost — not a moonlighting energy specialist, economist, or urban planner. He was born and raised in Pontiac, Mich., best known as one of General Motors’ major factory sites, and as the namesake for one of its most famed former brands. He bought his first car as a high school junior in the mid-1960s — a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle, for US$1,300 — and paid off the loan by working in his dad’s diner.

Burns joined GM at age 18, under a program in which he studied for an engineering degree at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, Mich.; students alternated every six weeks between their studies and work at the company. His scholarship was sponsored by GM’s research laboratory (the lab he later ran as head of R&D), and he went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering and public policy from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. During his 40-year career at GM, Burns played an increasingly central role in the company’s many innovations and experiments in auto technology and design. He is currently a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan and director of the roundtable on sustainable mobility at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

His vision is explained at length, and richly illustrated, in Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2010), which he coauthored with Christopher Borroni-Bird (GM’s director of advanced technology vehicle concepts) and the late William J. Mitchell (who was a professor of architecture and media arts and sciences at MIT and director of the Smart Cities research group at MIT’s Media Lab). The future may or may not unfold exactly as the authors outlined, but they have made a significant contribution by connecting the dots among the technologies, trends, and ideas that enable a very different — and less energy intensive — future for the automobile. Burns spoke with strategy+business in May 2010 at Booz & Company’s offices in New York City.

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