Google’s self-driving car
Imagine getting to the office in the morning and starting your day unscathed by the frustration of the commute — no gridlock, no honking, no being on the receiving end of a third-finger salute.
This is the future Richard Brockway sees as imminent, once self-driving cars hit the road. He doubled down Wednesday on his prediction such cars could roll out in South Florida as early as next year, citing swift advances Google has made in its technology in the 15 months since he last spoke at the North County Neighborhood Coalition’s breakfast at The Club at Ibis.
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What the “car of the future” looked like to futurists in the 1950s
Push a call button and the car shows up at your door in 40 seconds. No steering wheel. No gas or brake pedal. No driver. Door opens, you sit down. “Take me to Chili’s,” you tell it and away you go. Thirty seconds into the ride, the menu pops up on a screen, then a server to take your order. You arrive at the restaurant and just as you’re seated the meal is served, since the car has communicated your estimated arrival time. Before your first bite the car is off to its next assignment.
That’s the scenario described by Richard Brockway, a West Palm Beach real estate developer with a lifelong passion for cars, and now for the self- driving kind that auto experts say will be within the grasp of consumers in two or three years.
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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.
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Google’s self-driving car senses nearby objects to mimic the decisions of a human driver.
When I was named vice-president of research and development at General Motors (GM) in 1998, I was asked: “If we reinvented the automobile, what would be different?” This question has framed my work since.
Today, around a billion cars and trucks move people and goods on the world’s roads. Parked end-to-end, this fleet would circle Earth more than 100 times. It is remarkable that such scale has been achieved with little change to the machine that was invented by Karl Benz and popularized by Henry Ford more than a century ago. The basic design of automobiles today is the same as it was in 1900: energized by oil, powered by combustion, driven mechanically by a person and intended for broad purpose.
Yet road transportation as we know it is unsustainable. More than 1.2 million people die on the road each year, equivalent to an epidemic, according to the World Health Organization. Ninety-five per cent of motor vehicles depend on oil for energy, holding car travel hostage to geopolitical issues and volatility in oil prices. Vehicle combustion engines account for more than one-fifth of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, making them a significant contributor to global climate change. And average speeds in congested cities can be as low as 20 kilometres per hour, causing productivity losses and travel stress.
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Burns with a model of the Jiao — one of three “EN-V” (electric networked vehicle) concept cars. Photograph by Jeffrey Sauger
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.
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