Larry Burns on Electric Vehicles and the Future of Personal Transportation

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Larry Burns, Future of Transportation
A Techwise Conversation with Larry Burns and Susan Hassler, a Podcast for IEEE Spectrum

The former head of R&D for General Motors, Larry Burns, talks about the convergence of lightweight electric vehicles and self-driving cars in new systems of personal transportation.

Susan Hassler: Hello, I’m Susan Hassler for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

We’re talking today with Larry Burns, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan. Larry was for many years at General Motors serving as vice president of research and development and strategic planning. In this role, he oversaw GM’s advanced technology innovation programs and corporate strategy. He also served on GM’s top decision-making bodies for operations and products. In addition to driving innovation into today’s vehicles, Burns led GM’s development of a new automotive DNA that marries electrically driven and connected vehicle technologies. The goal was to realize sustainable personal mobility with smart cars that are aspirational and affordable. So could you first tell us a little bit about your history with EVs, and yourself, your own involvement with electric vehicles?

Larry Burns: I’d be happy to do that, Susan. I was employed by General Motors really from when I entered college back in the early ’70s until I left General Motors in 2009. From 1998 to 2009, I was the corporate vice president of research and development for GM and also had the position of head of planning and strategic planning for the company. So I was very involved with product planning from the mid-’90s until I left, as well as the more strategic direction of GM.

Certainly all of the issues associated with the future of transportation technology, I became very involved in. It wasn’t just one thing. Battery electric vehicles are certainly a very important part of the future, but hybrid electric vehicles were important, fuel-cell electric vehicles were important, alternative sources of energy, biofuels and diesel, cleaner gasoline, they’re very important, improvements in combustion engines, and then materials. So I had a chance to get exposed to a very wide spectrum of individual technologies, but I think more importantly, how they all fit together to try to move forward, to deal with the very pressing issues that the auto industry was facing, as well as the world was facing.

Let’s face it: When you look at when the automobile was invented by Karl Benz 137 years ago, and it was popularized by Ford 110 years ago, you begin to conclude that even today our cars and trucks are very, very similar to those century-old designs. We haven’t had a major transformation in how people and goods move around and interact economically and socially over that century, unlike other industries—take telecommunications, for example. So as head of strategy, as well as head of R&D, I was very, very interested in whether such a transformation was imminent, and it wasn’t any one technology that I was especially betting on as much as it was the convergence of all of the opportunities that were surfacing in the late ’90s, and then over the 2000 to 2010 time frame.

Susan Hassler: Well, the reason I called you, of course, is because we published a story by Ozzie Zehner called “Unclean at Any Speed” that was very provocative. It basically asked, How can you evaluate how green electric vehicles are? So can you talk a little bit about why it’s hard to understand how green some of these new technologies are?

Larry Burns: Absolutely. First of all, life-cycle analysis is an extremely important tool, and it’s one that we need to continue to apply. And the life cycle isn’t just when you’re driving your car. It’s also when you manufacture the car, design and engineer it, the materials that you use, the degree to which those materials are recyclable, the energy required to create those materials, as well as the energy required to transport the materials to plants, and vehicles from the plants to their destination. And we need to understand all of those factors. And the most important thing to predict is, What are consumers really going to want? Because to solve our climate-change challenges and our energy-diversity challenges, our air-pollution challenges, our highway-fatality challenges, we have to bring about huge change at a huge scale. And we’re not going to be able to do that with small penetrations of special types of technologies, whether they’re hybrids, and, yes, it’s exciting that hybrids have reached volumes of, you know, 3.5 million per year being produced. That’s still a very small market share compared to what’s being done with combustion engines.

So you can’t predict any one technology’s development path, and you have some very serious issues that you’re trying to address, and so you need to have a portfolio of opportunities. And these things don’t play out individually—technology doesn’t play out individually—so we do a lot of great work on lithium-ion batteries that’s fantastic and that stimulates electric vehicles, which helps us make better motors and power electronics. And lo and behold, those power electronics and motors are the same ones that may move really new fuel-cell vehicles forward, or they may contribute to a better form of a hybrid.

The other thing that we need to get at, Susan, which is extremely important, is the mass of the vehicles that we ride around in. A typical car weighs 3000 to 4000 pounds, and when you burn a gallon of gasoline in that car, about 25 percent of it actually turns into torque, or power, to move the car. The rest is lost as heat. And if the car weighs 3000 pounds, and a person weighs 150 pounds, when you play out the arithmetic, you wake up and realize that only 1 percent of BTUs in a gallon of gasoline are moving the person driving it.

Susan Hassler: So if it’s five people in the car and some dogs, it makes sense to drive in your Buick. But if it’s one person and a dog, and maybe nothing else, it maybe doesn’t make sense.

Larry Burns: Absolutely. Yeah, and that’s part of the complexity here. I love the debate that’s been stimulated by Ozzie’s article. I think it’s a very healthy debate to be taking place, and I think IEEE Spectrum’s doing a great job keeping that discussion going. I want to add a few dimensions to that discussion, and it has to do not just with the technology, and whether it’s green, but it has to do with how the technology is used.

So when I use my vehicle, which is a Buick Enclave, and I have two children, I have two dogs, and my mother-in-law lives with us, and when we travel together, a 3-hour drive to an area where we like to spend our leisure time, that’s not too bad when you have that car totally filled with people. But when I commute in that car, that’s not a very good proposition, right? I’m using 1 percent of my BTUs to move me, and I’m moving mostly the mass of the car.

So whether it’s public transit, which sometimes the bus is full, but a lot of times the bus is 10 percent full, and you run the numbers on the utilization of the 10-percent-full bus, and it doesn’t look too green. So people have to be careful about grabbing onto one thing: Public transportation’s the answer, and it’s green! I think shared transportation is an enormously important part of our future. I happen to think it could be a vehicle that we share that’s not a 64-passenger bus; it could be a two-person pod that gets shared. Why do I like that idea? Well, that pod might weigh 500 to 1000 pounds, and when it’s down to that mass, it’s much more amenable to plug-in electric, and that gives you three times more efficiency than combustion.

And you take the mass down by a factor of four, and the combustion up by a factor of three, and you’re looking at 12 times on efficiency, as well as CO2opportunities. Tesla is a marvelous accomplishment. I give them standing ovations for their ingenuity and their engineering, but they’re still moving a vehicle that weighs on the order of 4000 pounds. And when you drive that by yourself, even though you’re using it as a plug-in electric, you’re moving way too much mass relative to yourself.

Susan Hassler: What kind of things is your group working on at the University of Michigan? And also, what kind of things are you doing with Google? Because then you’re talking about self-driving cars, right?

Larry Burns: Well, yes. Where it gets exciting is the holistic opportunity that surfaces when you combine connected vehicles. A connected vehicle is basically a vehicle that communicates with things along the roadway system and with other vehicles, and you can get content brought in. So OnStar is an example of a connected vehicle. You’ll hear the term “telematics” as well. But connectivity is here. It’s happening, whether it’s in your navigation system or your Bluetooth system, whatever it is, you’re connected as you’re moving.

You combine that with autonomous vehicles, and those are vehicles that literally drive themselves. And that’s what Google’s working on, as well as many other companies. General Motors, Toyota, Daimler, BMW, all of those companies are working hard to push the limits of how far we can take technology so that vehicles can drive themselves.

Then you marry that up with shared vehicle systems. So we’ve all heard of Zipcar, RelayRides, Car2go—those are examples of a conclusion which is, “Geez, why are people buying all these cars and then having them be parked 90 to 95 percent of the time?” Whereas if we shared those cars, we could have those cars utilized 70, 80 percent of the day and dramatically reduce the parking challenge.

Better yet, as a user of that vehicle, I can get dropped off at my door if I combine that with a driverless system. So now you put those things together, and you can begin to think about tailoring the designs of the vehicles to be much lower mass. Ninety percent of the trips in the U.S. are one- and two-person trips. So if we can design a vehicle that’s tailored to the one- to two-person trip, that happens to weigh less than 1000 pounds, that happens to be shared, that happens to not need a driver so you can use your time as you like, and it can reposition itself when it’s dropped you off and pick up somebody else, suddenly you begin to see this world of a totally different mobility system that could be far less costly.

The point I’m trying to make here is we need to think about transforming the entire mobility system as a system. That’s what the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center is focused on, and the work I do with Google is really part of the self-driving vehicle program.

Everything I’ve mentioned is starting to converge. We’ve got electric vehicles. We’ve got shared vehicles. We have connected vehicles. We know how to tailor designs. And autonomous is the next piece that will fall into that puzzle. And when that fits into that piece, I think we’re going to have a transformation. And for the heated debate, passion around “Are battery-electric vehicles green?” really I think is a small discussion compared to what is the opportunity that we see down the road to really begin moving ourselves around in ways that make much, much better sense than moving around with 4000-pound cars, whether they’re electric cars or combustion cars.

Susan Hassler: Thank you very much for talking with us today, Larry.

Larry Burns: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And I hope this can add constructively to the dialogue that you’ve already created.

Susan Hassler: We’ve been talking with Larry Burns, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan and formerly head of General Motors research and development program. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Susan Hassler.

Photo: Brian Kersey/Reuters