What Happens When A.I. Takes The Wheel? In his new book Autonomy, Lawrence Burns, formerly with General Motors, argues that self-driving, electric cars are inevitable. In an interview with NPR, he addresses the now — and the future.
NPR logo What Happens When A.I. Takes The Wheel?

What Happens When A.I. Takes The Wheel?

An unmanned automobile competes in the i-VISTA (Intelligent Vehicle Integrated Systems Test Area) Autonomous Driving Challenge on August 18 in Chongqing, China. VCG/Getty hide caption

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An unmanned automobile competes in the i-VISTA (Intelligent Vehicle Integrated Systems Test Area) Autonomous Driving Challenge on August 18 in Chongqing, China.

VCG/Getty

For many, if not most Americans, the idea of a world in which we don't drive cars is a distant and possibly unlikely future.

When autonomous, or self-driving cars make headlines, it's often for all the wrong reasons: yet another Tesla public scandal; an accident during an autonomous test drive; or the laughably terrifying face of the new autonomous Jaguar.

In his book Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World, Lawrence D. Burns reflects on just how much Henry Ford and the automobile have molded America's identity. Burns himself grew up in Detroit, submerged in car culture. He went on to become the corporate vice president of research and development for General Motors, where for years he was a lone wolf advocating for electric and self-driving cars. He later went on to work with companies like Waymo (formerly Google Self-Driving cars).

In Autonomy, Burns tells the story of how self-driving cars went from being a Sci-Fi fantasy to a possibility, and he offers compelling arguments for why we should make them an everyday reality, rather than fear or mock them. He also gives insight into the complicated and rapidly changing relationship between Silicon Valley and Detroit.

Burns, too, raises important questions about what the transportation revolution will mean for everyday Americans. NPR interviewed Burns about the book and his views, edited below for length and clarity.

Near the beginning of the book, you tell the story of how Sept. 11 made you introspective about oil dependence and the automobile industry.

I was in Germany, the Frankfurt auto show. And I was headed back to my hotel. It was the afternoon in Frankfurt at the time. And I received a call from GM security, which was very unusual. They asked me to get to the hotel and go to a specific room as soon as I arrived, and don't do anything else. When I arrived in that room a TV monitor was on and I could see that one of the towers in the World Trade Center was burning, and just as I walked in, the plane flew into the second tower.

It certainly made me think hard about what exactly is going on in the world and the degree to which the dependence of the automobile on oil as a source of energy ... you couldn't help but conclude that that had a lot to do with what was going on at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon at that moment. And I felt a true sense of responsibility to do something about it.

I found it mesmerizing in the book when you talk about growing up in Detroit. It feels like our identity is so tied to the automobile, at a molecular level. But really we're living in a different moment right now: Detroit was devastated by the car-industry crisis. Our dependence on oil is not sustainable. I wonder if you feel like our culture has not caught up to our reality?

I think there's some of that. I also think it's a generational thing. I mean, Prince wrote "Little Red Corvette" and Aretha Franklin sung about pink Cadillacs. So I understand that passion about the car. But when I talk to my daughters, who are 30 and 27, their coming of age was their iPhone and not their car. And they both have cars. And I ask them: "What would you give up first? Your car, or your cellphone?" And they would give up their car beforehand.

I think we have a generation coming that has experienced an alternative to car ownership. And I do believe we really have solutions for that generation that are going to be maybe even more compelling than owning and operating your own car.

In the book, you talk about the animosity between Detroit and Silicon Valley. Are things warming up? Is it getting better?

It was striking to me how little Detroit understood about Silicon Valley, and then once I became an advisor for Google self-driving cars in 2011, I began to appreciate more how much Silicon Valley really didn't understand Detroit.

Having grown up in the auto-industry, I really respect what the industry is capable of doing. At the same time, I think Detroit has reached the conclusion that it needed to outsource its R&D [research and design] in this whole area of self-driving cars to the startups in Silicon Valley.

There's a very remarkable moment in the history of Google self-driving cars when they were positioning to create Waymo, and they brought in John Krafcik, who is a seasoned automotive executive, to be the CEO. I think that was a clear recognition, by the leadership of Google, that it's not Silicon Valley versus Detroit, or Silicon Valley or Detroit. It's Silicon Valley and Detroit.

In the book you talk about this epiphany you had. You get called into a warehouse, where you see this disassembled Toyota Prius. What you realize is the electric vehicle will require a lot fewer employees for assembly. The crucial expertise is no longer going to be mechanical. What do you think this means for the future of the American workforce? And how do we prepare?

The driverless car isn't just about the 4 million Americans who do driving for a living. Certainly, that's a significant impact — and if I was one of those drivers, I would be probably looking at this differently than I am as one of the people trying to make it happen. I understand that completely. But think about an electric car: It doesn't have an exhaust system. It doesn't have a gasoline tank, it doesn't have a transmission, it doesn't have all those mechanical parts that move the power from the engine to the wheels and then inside the engine. Think about all the parts that are moving around — mechanical parts — to create that power! The electric car could have 1/10 as many parts in them as cars we have on the road today.

That doesn't necessarily translate one-for-one to say we're going to have a 90 percent reduction in the auto industry workforce. But the fact is, that will mean fewer jobs in the manufacturing sector. So this isn't just a concern about the job for the driver. It's the jobs for the entire economy. What if you are an owner operator of a gasoline station, and now in the future these vehicles will be electric? What if you own a parking lot in a major city? What if you're a car dealer?

There's a term called "get in front of the inevitable." If you believe this kind of change is inevitable, then you need to get in front of it. Secondly, there's a need for a new set of skills, in-line with the new technologies that are shaping our lives. And we need to draw on the high schools and community colleges, and the jobs development initiatives, and manage this transition.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk came under fire for his critiques of public transportation, how you have to share it, it doesn't get you exactly where you want. He was called elitist. Should we be investing in autonomous and electric cars, or in public transportation? Or are those not mutually exclusive?

The problem with most public transportation systems is they're tied to a route and they're tied to a schedule ... and the inconvenience of having the bus stop so many times to pick up other people, and drop off people, and follow a route.

Now we have a new set of technology. I can determine where you are, if you want a ride. And I can look at where the vehicles are that can provide you a ride, and I can link up that supply with you in real time, and take you door to door. And that is a very, very powerful way to move people around. It's demand responsive, and it's spontaneous.

Imagine having highly affordable, two-person pods that are demand-responsive on the order of 20 to 25 cents a mile, being available to take people to jobs, take people to schools, and improve their lives. I think the cycle of poverty we have on a lot of neighborhoods depends on good transportation services.

Electric car maker Tesla has been in the news a lot lately — and not in a good way. Mostly for its struggles. What do you make of Tesla right now?

I think Tesla is a remarkable story of innovation ... and the Model S is a phenomenal automobile. I give them very, very high marks for that. But creating a full-blown automobile company, where you are able to sell a portfolio of vehicles, not just one but different price points, is a really tough thing to pull off. The automobile industry knows how to do it well, and I think Tesla is rapidly learning to do that, and I'm not at all surprised that they are having some of the challenges that they've had.

I'm a little concerned about their approach to autonomous vehicles — they still seem to think you can keep the driver in the loop, and get the driver's attention when the driverless system isn't capable of handling a situation. I continue to advise Waymo, and we made a decision a few years back that we'll never be safer than a human driver if we have to rely on someone to re-engage as a human to take over a car when the autonomous system can't handle it.

Autonomous cars are still very much seen as a toy, for tech people. What do you want the American public to know about them?

I think the most important thing is that they're going to be safer than the human-driven cars that we have today. Secondly, that the experiences you're going to have are going to be fantastic: dropped off at your door, picked up at your door, use your time as you please. You're going to be in the ultimate riding machine. Very, very importantly, the cost-per-mile will be significantly less than that of owning and operating a car.

Now, I'm not saying people in the future can't own and drive their car. If that's what they want to do, if they want to be tethered to their steering wheel, spend their time driving, if they want to be looking for gas stations, and spend their time pumping gas, if they want to be looking for parking, hey, that's great. And if they want to pay on the order of $1.50 a mile, (that's the out of pocket cost and time cost of owning and operating a car) that's fine as well.