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Published: August 24, 2010
 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60


The Thought Leader Interview: Lawrence Burns

I don’t think it’s a lack of innovation. The main reason upheavals haven’t happened is that the automobile transportation system benefited from a tremendous self-reinforcing dynamic: the codependence between the roadway infrastructure, the energy infrastructure, and the machines that we created.

As cars became available in the early 1900s, you needed to build roads suitable for them, and the costs of the roads were paid with gasoline taxes. That was a stroke of genius by somebody. As more cars were manufactured, more gasoline was consumed; the more gasoline was consumed, the more roads were built. The more roads were built, the more valuable a car became. And as cars became more valuable, it led to more cars being bought. That growth dynamic was an enormous enabler. Next thing, you wake up and in the United States you have 250 million cars, and they travel on 4 million miles of road, 3 trillion miles a year.

That’s been wonderful because of the freedom it has provided, but the automobile transportation system has also created a lot of negative side effects, and they raise the question of sustainability. If the world isn’t happy with these side effects — and it appears the world isn’t — but the world still wants that freedom to move around and interact, which is important both for us as social people and for the economy in total, then something is going to have to change fundamentally.

So we thought about a new DNA for the automobile, but you couldn’t create that just for the car itself. It has to operate within a new codependent system. How are you going to get the energy, and what are going to be the things that control the vehicle? We feel that the book makes two really transformational points: that vehicles in the future will be electrically driven, and that they will be connected via what we call the Mobility Internet. In fact, I believe connected vehicles, vehicles that talk with one another and communicate with everything along the roadway, will prove to be more transformational for the auto industry than different types of propulsion systems.

Cars That Don’t Crash

S+B: You mentioned that safety was a major concern of yours. How did that influence your thinking, and how is it addressed by the future you envision for electrically driven and connected vehicles?

BURNS: It’s central to the vision. Safety was something I had thought about since my student days studying mobility and transportation; throughout my career at GM, it was always in the back of my mind that someday we could build cars that didn’t crash. Flocks of geese can fly in formations and not run into each other. Swarms of bees don’t run into each other. If you watch pedestrians in metro stations or airport terminals, they can move around quickly, even when they’re closely packed together. Without even consciously knowing what we’re doing, we have a built-in algorithm that lets us know how to bob when the other person weaves, and somehow we don’t run into each other either. Yet, for 120 years, the world has accepted the fact that cars will run into each other.

So, in 2003, I put a simple question to the research engineers at GM: If cars didn’t crash, how would you design a car? And no one knew how to do it. They all went, “Oh my gosh, we haven’t thought about that.” And as they answered the question, it turns out that it changes a lot of things about how you would design a car.

The two biggest changes are the size, or mass, of the vehicle, and the way it’s controlled or driven. A lot of the mass in a modern car is built in to protect an occupant in the rare instance that it crashes at a pretty high speed, and it is capable of very high speeds. You find that more mass begets more mass as you look at the physics of both mass and acceleration. But when we looked at where the world was heading, with the population moving increasingly to cities, and at the average speeds that cars travel in cities, it dawned on us that if we could design a car that didn’t crash, it could be significantly smaller and lighter. It also dawned on us that we could design cars that could drive themselves.

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