"Autonomy," Lawrence D. Burns with Christopher Shulgan, Ecco, 356 pages, $27.99.
The car is “terribly inefficient,” notes Lawrence D. Burns in his book “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — and How It Will Reshape Our World.”
Burns is director of Columbia University’s Program on Sustainable Mobility but was for many years a vice president at General Motors. The story he sets out to tell in “Autonomy,” aided by writer Christopher Shulgan, is one of increasing disenchantment with the status quo in Detroit.
The car, after all, had barely changed since the Model T. Burns while at GM agreed to sponsor a team from Carnegie Mellon as it embarked on the biggest challenge yet: piloting an autonomous vehicle through an urban environment.
For Burns, the success was more than a proof of concept, it was a nascent revolution, the sort of mobility disruption he hoped to see: He longed not only to take the internal combustion engine out of the vehicle but to remove the driver.
At the time, though, the car guys mostly just didn’t get why people would not want to drive. During the urban challenge, Burns notes, Google sent a “planeload” of senior executives; GM, by contrast, sent only him.
Burns is right to envision a better future with computer-assisted driving. But like a parent handing the car keys to a newly licensed teenager, relinquishing autonomy to computers will come with a curious mixture of hope, fear, regret and more than a few mishaps.
“Enjoy the ride,” Burns offers as his final words — but do buckle up.