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9/11 was a pivotal moment for Larry Burns. At the time he was busy leading R&D for General Motors. He was in Frankfurt for the auto show when the attacks happened. There were no flights back to the U.S. And, like many people, it prompted a bout of soul searching as he was convinced that one of the root causes was related to oil.
“I really committed myself at that point in time to go down a path where we could get the cars off of oil. So it had a major impact on me,” says Burns. He adds: “Business as usual with oil wasn’t going to cut it going forward.”
Winners and Losers
After leaving GM, Burns has advised around fifty different companies but the main one has been Google’s self driving outfit Waymo. He’s worked with the Waymo team since 2011.
“My focus really is on this world of auto mobility where we’re taking electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles in a different way of delivering it. Rather than selling a person a car, you’re providing them with trips and experiences.”
Burns told Auto Futures that this is why he’s written a book called ‘Autonomy. The Quest to Build the Driverless Car’.
But he says that the quest itself is a marathon not a sprint. “This is a long arduous journey.”
He adds: “Those who are not going to win it are those who are committed to business as usual. I’m certainly excited about the progress Waymo’s making but I’m equally as excited about the progress many of the the other players are making because my personal motivation is to acclerate the realization of what I think is now possible…a sustainable future.”
He doesn’t rule out the major OEMs making rapid progress but he thinks there will be big winners and some big losers.
Burns believes that we are now at a tipping point. “There was clear denial up until about 2015. And then there was a moment when it became crystal clear, not just to Google but to companies like Uber – that driverless cars were real and will have an existential impact. Then it was like a stampede was triggered and everybody jumped in.”
“Maybe we’re halfway through this marathon. You’ve got a group of runners out in front but it’s kind of hard to predict how the race is going to end.”
Plotting the Path to a Driverless Future
Burns thinks that the path that Waymo is following – towards full, level 4 autonomy – is the preferred route. “I happen to believe that self driving systems that continue to assume the driver’s paying enough attention to take over when needed, I think that’s a dead-end.”
And he expressed concern over the route Tesla has so far taken. “To call their system Autopilot is to plant an impression in the minds of their customers that the car could drive itself – eventhough they’ve said in their owner’s manual that you have to pay attention. I think they got out in front of themselves a little bit with that.”
Over the next decade Burns predicts that the old business model of buying and selling cars will evolve to a subscription model. “I think there will be people who are car enthusiasts…just like horse enthusiasts. But in fact there are a lot of negatives that come with owning and upgrading an automobile.”
He adds: “What you’re going to want with your autonomous car is you want to have it pick you up or drop you off at your door. You’re not going to want the hassle of parking and you’re going to want a company standing behind you taking all those hassles out of your life.”  And we can safely assume that one of those companies will be Google.
In the epilogue of his book, Burns concludes with the following sentence: ‘One thing’s certain: We’re heading for interesting times. Enjoy the ride!’.

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