Aspen Ideas Festival: The bigger business picture behind driverless cars

Driverless cars seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie only a few years ago. Now such a concept could be within tangible reach.

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ASPEN, COLO. -- Are driverless vehicles really hitting the pavement anytime soon? That has been a hot topic at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival this year, suggesting that concept could become a reality sooner than anyone might have expected.

Lawrence Burns, former corporate vice president of research and development for General Motors, posited on Monday afternoon that we've "entered into a period where this big idea" will lead to huge business growth opportunities and sustainable mobility.

At its core, Burns defined a driverless car as simply a vehicle that can operate without a driver in it, or "truly a robot without human control."

But he elaborated that the essence of this big idea isn't just one thing that will transform how we move around -- it's a number of ideas combined: connected, coordinated, shared, driverless, tailored and electrical vehicles.

Now a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, Burns cited that when a person uses a gallon of gas to drive a car, only one percent of the energy being burned is relative to the driver.

Proposing that we have a "solvable opportunity" on our hands for electric cars, Burns argued that we "can't just have one percent of energy moving us."

Burns reiterated, "I believe we have a sustainable mobility solution with our grasp."

"The key is to get weight of cars down to a size that really matters," Burns continued.

To see driverless cars become real, Burns stipulated we first have to understand basic economics in which the value is greater than the price, enticing automakers to invest and consumers to buy.

Starting with value, Burns offered a scenario much like requesting a taxi cab through one's phone, being able to track the driver's location prior to arrival, receiving an estimated arrival time, and paying directly from one's phone.

The difference with Burns's example is that this "magical experience" lacked a driver altogether, hinting value through a completely computerized, automated and seamless experience.

But Burns emphasized how critical cost is in this equation, suggesting even implementing such a program in Manhattan, where he noted there are approximately 13,000 taxi medallions in circulation.

Certainly replacing roughly 13,000 cabs (and the jobs that go with them) would be highly controversial, to say the least.

Burns concluded that the biggest risk here is actually not moving fast enough on advancing this technology.

Burns acknowledged this, but he responded that "at the same time you've got to get these ideas out there to make progress."

The final piece of the puzzle, according to Burns, is price. He explained that the business model for the "highly co-dependent" auto industry comes down to selling three things: vehicles, gasoline, and insurance.

"Tomorrow it will be about miles, trips and experiences," Burns predicted, adding that's what Zipcar, Uber and similar emerging companies have already understood.

Stressing we have to major all of these factors carefully, Burns reiterated, "I believe we have a sustainable mobility solution with our grasp."

Nevertheless, that co-dependency framework will likely remain as Burns admitted that "no one company that can do this. It really is a team sport."

Burns concluded that the biggest risk here is actually not moving fast enough on advancing this technology.

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