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Autonomy

The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – And How It Will Reshape Our World

By Lawrence D. Burns
15-minute read
Audio available
Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – And How It Will Reshape Our World by Lawrence D. Burns

Autonomy (2018) chronicles the long story of driverless vehicles and imagines a future that’s almost upon us. From the perspective of an auto-industry insider, the book goes deep into the history of automation, from the US Defense Department’s sponsored races in the Mojave Desert to the innovations of traditional car manufacturers. Lawrence D. Burns describes a world of Silicon Valley geeks and rugged inventors in a narrative that should interest anyone pondering the world to come.

  • Technology buffs interested in the story of automation
  • Car aficionados worried about a future full of driverless vehicles
  • Budding roboticists

Lawrence D. Burns was corporate vice president of research, development and planning at General Motors, overseeing GM’s advanced technology programs from 1998 to 2009. He was also professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan from 2010 to 2016 and served as an advisor to the Google self-driving car project now known as Waymo. He lives in Franklin, Michigan. 

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Autonomy

The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – And How It Will Reshape Our World

By Lawrence D. Burns
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – And How It Will Reshape Our World by Lawrence D. Burns
Synopsis

Autonomy (2018) chronicles the long story of driverless vehicles and imagines a future that’s almost upon us. From the perspective of an auto-industry insider, the book goes deep into the history of automation, from the US Defense Department’s sponsored races in the Mojave Desert to the innovations of traditional car manufacturers. Lawrence D. Burns describes a world of Silicon Valley geeks and rugged inventors in a narrative that should interest anyone pondering the world to come.

Key idea 1 of 9

Gasoline-powered vehicles are everywhere, but they’re shockingly inefficient.

Listen to your surroundings for a moment. Unless you’re deep in the countryside, out at sea or on a desert island, you’ll most likely hear the vr-vr-vroom of an automobile’s internal combustion engine.

It’s an invention that has transformed the modern world, choking it with exhaust fumes and filling it with noise pollution. And given this high cost, you might be surprised to learn that the internal combustion engine and the gas-guzzling vehicles it powers use energy very inefficiently. 

Less than 30 percent of the energy from the gasoline that goes into your car is used to drive it along the road. The remainder is wasted as heat or used to power accessories like headlights, radios and air conditioners. Then, because the average vehicle weighs about 3,000 pounds and the average person weighs about 150 pounds, only a meager 5 percent of the gasoline energy converted into motion is used to move the driver.

And gas-powered vehicles use space inefficiently, too. Think of those traffic jams that snake on for miles, whole cities brought to a standstill by swarms of rush-hour cars. The average speed in congested cities, according to the US Department of Transportation, can be as low as 12 mph, which is highly fuel-inefficient.

It's especially shocking when you realize that most of those cars aren't even full! The average occupancy in vehicles is just 1.1 people on a daily work commute. For cars with enough room for at least five adults, that's a highly uneconomical use of space.

And as we use our vehicles just 5 percent of the time, we have to find a place to store them for the other 95 percent. So, we dedicate large parts of our homes to garages and driveways. And our workplaces, our shopping centers and sports stadiums have to build enormous parking lots, too – paving over huge expanses of land that could be used for valuable real estate or left to nature. We create “asphalt heat islands” that increase urban temperatures, and are even thought to contribute to climate change.

All of this adds up to a giant, damaging waste of energy and space. So, the question isn’t “Why would we want to do away with cars as we use them today?” – it’s, “why wouldn’t we?” 

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