National Press Club

World of driverless pods could transform mobility

October 15, 2015 | By Brooke C. Stoddard |

Larry Burns

Larry Burns

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Larry Burns, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, sketched a future of driverless, intercommunicating, on-demand, two-seat “pods” that will dramatically alter how we get around at an Oct. 14 Newsmakers Event at the National Press Club.

This world is not far off and should be encouraged, he said.

Burns, formerly corporate vice president of R and D and strategic planning at General Motors, was joined by Robbie Diamond, president and CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) and Lynn Liddle, executive vice president of Domino’s Pizza.

Diamond stressed the need for what Burns called “transforming mobility” in order to wean Americans from heavy reliance on petroleum. He announced the Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, of which Burns is a member.

Liddle discussed how driverless vehicles would fit into the business world, specifically how wholesale and retail goods would be delivered.

Burns’ vision is revolutionary. Noting that cars in years 1900 and 2000 have “the same DNA,” that is, internal combustion engine, transmission, steering wheel, four seats, a driver and independence from other cars, he said technologies were close to making practical two-seat pods running on electric motors powered by fuel cells or batteries, communicating with ones nearby, with no steering wheel and only two seats.

Mobility by such autonomous vehicles could vastly reduce transportation and social costs, Burns said, and with minimal trade-offs. Whereas cars are now individually owned and remain mainly idle, individuals need not own autonomous vehicles, which would arrive where needed on demand and be used continuously.

Liddle pointed out that Domino’s Pizza deliverers drive 10 million miles a week in the United States. Delivery via lightweight driverless cars that would never become lost in a subdivision could be a boon to franchise owners. Another business benefit would come from driverless trucks hauling goods from factories to distribution points.

Diamond warned that U.S. dependence on petroleum was too high and that progress curtailing automobile emissions was too slow but that autonomous vehicles could play a large part in reaching the goal of “50 in 40,” meaning 50% reduction in petroleum use by 2040.

Diamond said he thought the most likely barrier to fleets of autonomous vehicles was not the technology but such vested interests as petroleum companies, manufacturers of traditional cars, and lawmakers.

Burns said a driverless-and-shared mobility system could save Americans $2 trillion to $4 trillion a year while reducing crashes by 90%. He said such makers of autonomous vehicles as Google [Alphabet] had enough testing completed and that it was time to set a fleet of five hundred or a thousand into volunteer communities for evaluation.

He said that “transforming mobility” was being made possible by a unique convergence of the movement to a “shared” economy, emerging technologies, and the desire to reduce the traditional forms of energy consumption.