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


The Thought Leader Interview: Lawrence Burns

S+B: You’ve framed a holistic conception of what the future might look like for personal transportation in major metropolitan areas. What motivated you to develop this vision?

BURNS: The challenges that we face related to how we move around and interact are pretty formidable, whether it’s concern about the environment, running out of oil, or national security issues related to our dependence on imported oil. These issues — what’s been called the sustainability debate — get a lot of attention, and are tremendously important, but other issues that get less attention are also important.

One is congestion. As head of R&D at GM, I thought a lot about what might make the automobile obsolete. I became concerned about congestion and parking problems in cities, where half the world’s population lives. What happens if owning an automobile is no longer attractive? In Manhattan, 70 percent of the people don’t own a car. That’s a pretty compelling threat to the automobile industry.

Another is safety. About 1.2 million people a year are dying on roadways worldwide; that’s epidemic in scale. Roadway safety is perhaps the most important sustainability issue faced by automobiles. However, energy and the environment seem to get a lot more play. I have always found this troubling. Not to say energy and the environment aren’t important. They are very important. However, 1.2 million is a very large number of drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists dying on roads each year.

One of my major concerns lies right at the heart of the fundamental value premise of an automobile. I’ve studied automobiles for my whole career, and there’s a reason that there are 850 million of them on the planet, with 250 million of them in the United States.

Although people are concerned about the negative side effects of automobiles, there’s nothing like the freedom they provide to let us go where we want, when we want, with the people we want to travel with. And the automobile has been an enormous economic engine for growth, not just in the United States but in many other nations.

When people look at the sustainability debate, they often conclude we have to give up something; we have to trade off something. I believe that the word and is better than the word or. Or means there’s a trade-off. And means there’s a synergy that we’re trying to leverage.

My coauthors, Bill Mitchell and Chris Borroni-Bird, and I wanted to get a book out there that was positive and optimistic — a compelling vision of what might be possible, given the technology that exists today, if we put it together in a new and innovative way. We feel this vision can take our freedom to move around and interact to a greater level, to allow more people to enjoy that freedom, and at the same time get rid of the negative side effects. We felt this book needed to be written, because so many people were looking at this debate through the lens of a single issue, and maybe a single technology, when in fact the convergence of the technology and the connecting of these dots are creating an opportunity to do things that are transformational. We also wanted to present a picture of a future that drives economic growth and job growth.

S+B: There is a lot of innovation going on in the auto industry now, and certainly an expectation of more change in the future, but what we’ve actually seen seems slow and incremental. How does that affect your vision of transformational change?

BURNS: The auto industry has had the same fundamental technological DNA for about 120 years: Companies manufacture driver-operated, stand-alone machines fueled by petroleum. There haven’t really been any disruptive innovations in all that time — and that’s true of very few industries. In most industries, major upheavals have unseated incumbents, and enormous innovation has helped new players become very successful. Think of the dramatic changes in industries like retailing or computers.

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