Self Driving Cars – Interview with Dr. Burns

Driverless cars are going to be the order of the day. Be it Tesla, Apple, Uber, Google, or the traditional car makers, the race is on. Think of the convenience. First of all, not having to learn how to drive and then being able to do what you want while being driven automatically to your destination. No steering wheel and no pedals.

Let’s have a closer look at this interview with Dr. Larry Burns, a former senior executive with General Motors, professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, and currently a consultant to a major technology giant that is keen to bring out self driving cars.


The Future of Self Driving Cars

Dr. Burns, dozens of self driving cars are already being tested on the streets in different parts of the world. When would you estimate this will become a reality for the average person?

Self-driving cars are very close to being real. Just last week, Waymo began providing fully autonomous vehicle trips to a few riders in Arizona. This is a major milestone and suggests self-driving cars could become more widely available in the next three years. 


So this will literally mean robots taking over the roads?

Yes, eventually robots will be moving people and goods within and between cities. While the transition will not take place overnight, it will occur sooner than most people expect. The benefits of driverless vehicles are very compelling. They will be safer, more convenient, and lower cost than today’s personally owned cars and they will provide transportation to people who can’t drive…like young people, old people, and disabled people. They will likely be widely adopted quickly because of the value they provide. 


What is the status of legislation on self driving cars in different countries?

Regulators have an important responsibility to ensure new technology is safe. At the same time, governments want to reap the benefits of new transportation systems as soon as possible. To meet both objectives, many countries around the world (for example, China, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are allowing companies to test driverless cars on public roads.

This is very useful because it allows engineers to safely learn how to improve driverless cars so they reach their full potential.


What do you envisage are going to be the practical problems associated with the move from the cars we have been driving for over a century to driverless cars?

First, self-driving technology must work and be proven to be safer than human drivers. Many companies are working hard to meet this requirement. Waymo, for example, has over 5 million kilometers of on-road learning with its system. Second, once the technology is ready, manufacturers must produce the required sensors, processors, controls, and vehicles.

Finally, transportation service companies must perfect their operations so that people always have great experiences using self-driving cars. 


Would you say the industry is already past the development stage and into the implementation stage?

Industry is past the invention and proof of concept stage and well into validation and small-scale commercial learning. A lot of work remains to be done. However, the prize is worth the effort. I believe implementation is inevitable and just around the corner.


When do you think this ‘science fiction’ was first conceived?

Futurists have envisioned robot cars for over a century. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, several technologies (e.g., GPS, digital maps, sensors, faster computers, artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced analytics) began to converge to make self driving possible.

Then, in 2002-2007, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) stimulated progress with a series of challenges aimed at proving autonomous vehicles were viable.  Google followed by hiring several young engineers and encouraging them to develop the technology so it works safely in real traffic.

The progress made over the past ten years has been remarkable and will change our lives dramatically.   


Please tell us about your growing up years and who were your role models?

I was born in Michigan, and my father owned a diner. I started working in the diner when I was 11 years old and learned how to do all the jobs by the time I graduated from high school. I liked math and science and decided to study engineering.

General Motors sponsored my education, and I eventually received my doctoral degree in transportation engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. My parents were my role models. They constantly emphasized the importance of education and treating all people with respect. My dad was the local baseball coach for 25 years and taught us how to have fun and the value of teamwork. 

The Burns Family Hiking in Peru
The Burns Family Hiking in Peru


Dr. Burns, what are your interests outside of work?

I enjoy traveling with my family, especially hiking trips throughout the world. I really love the outdoors. In the winter, snow-shoeing and skiing are my passions. In the summers I like to walk my dogs on the beaches of Lake Michigan and golf with my best friends. 


Our readers are mainly young adults from different parts of the world who look up to individuals such as you for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

Cherish your freedom and your opportunities to realize your full potential. Your education is a journey, not a destination. So much has changed since I graduated from high school and college, and you will experience even more change in your lives than I have. You must embrace this change and learn how to learn. Be willing to try new things and be resilient when difficulties arise.

Knowledge comes from experience, and experience comes from failure.

So, don’t fear failure…learn from it. I have had the privilege to work with people from around the world. While cultures differ in wonderful ways, I am amazed by how universally capable people are when given an opportunity to pursue their aspirations. The sky is the limit for people who are curious, motivated, and determined to realize their full potential.

Photos: From the Archive of Dr. Burns


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