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Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World by Lawrence D Burns and Christopher Shulgan

Published in August of 2018.

About 110 Americans were killed by a motor vehicle in the past 24 hours. Any one of those 110 people could have been our kids, our partners, our parents, or our friends.

Can you imagine how this country would react if 40,000 Americans died each year from terrorism? We’d have soldiers with automatic rifles at every public gathering.

If 40,000 people died in plane crashes, then every airplane would be grounded. (Instead, nobody died in 2017 in a commercial jet crash).  

We will look back on these years with horror. The 130 years between the introduction of the Model T (1908) and the widespread adoption of self-driving cars (I’m guessing 2038) will be remembered as a time of collective insanity.

How will we get from where we are today, where cars are deadly and way too many people are killed or injured, to a place where mobility is safe?

Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car provides some useful answers.

Lawrence D Burns is particularly well-suited to tackle the question of the transition away from human driving. He was a GM executive for decades, and as a productive second act, Burns has served as a key advisor to Google's (Waymo) self-driving car program.

As an engineer and an automotive industry veteran, Burns knows very well how difficult it will be to develop the technology to replace human drivers with sensors, cameras, and computers. The challenge, as described by Burns, is that a combination of human and computer driving does not work very well. Technologies that allow drivers to divert their attention do not fail gracefully.  Once distracted or complement, we are terrible at quickly assuming control of our cars in cases where the technology is unable to cope.

A better solution, now being pursued by Waymo (Google), is fully autonomous vehicles. We are still some ways off to when fully self-driving cars can handle all the edge cases that drivers encounter.

Nor do we seem close to having a legal system that can cope with the inevitable accidents involving autonomous vehicles, even if self-driving cars are vastly safer than human-driven vehicles.

Autonomy embeds us with the engineers at Carnegie Mellon and Google that have brought us to the brink of a self-driving revolution. As a former auto executive, Burns is also able to explain why it is that the major automobile manufacturers were so slow to invest in both autonomous driving and electric vehicles.  (Including the real story as to why GM killed the EV1).  

The book also does an excellent job of addressing concerns around the employment dislocations that will result from self-driving vehicles. There are lots of people worried about what will happen to all those truckers and Uber drivers once autonomous vehicles are a reality.

Burns makes a good case that the benefits to society will vastly outweigh the costs of this shift. The amount of resources, land, and time that would be freed up from switching from owning our own cars (that mostly sit idle) to autonomous electric vehicles as a service is truly astounding.  The question will be if those who lose their driving jobs will receive re-training and assistance in finding new work.

I think that the shift towards autonomous and electric vehicles is among the most exciting stories of our time.  Autonomy provides an excellent guide as to why these twin mobility changes are so difficult to pull off.

For those like me that would like to see self-driving electric cars replace human-driven internal combustion driven vehicles, Autonomy might be a bit depressing. The mobility changes are coming, just not as quickly as we would like.

Can you recommend any books on autonomous vehicles, electric automobiles, and the future of transportation?

What year do you predict that most vehicles will be self-driving?

How worried are you about technological unemployment?

What are you reading?

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