Aspen Ideas Festival: The bigger business picture behind driverless cars

Aspen Ideas Festival: The bigger business picture behind driverless cars

Summary: 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.


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.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Google, Tech Industry

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  • Business picture or greed factor

    It's not about business, It's about greed. If you were to succeed in the driverless card project. You would, for example, lighten the vehicle by reducing safety features, since the major component in auto accidents, the driver, is removed. In theory, connected cars, no drivers, no (or virtually no) accidents. No (or virtually no) accidents equals no insurance companies (a major greed factor). Electric cars equals no gasoline, thus no need (or less of a need) for oil companies (also a major greed factor).

    My opinions are sure to spawn a slew of comments both pro and con. So be it. I believe these points are just the tip of the iceberg. To many greed factors to mention, but these two are the first and most prevalent in my mind.
    • It's not quite that simple.

      You can't reduce safety unless you get all the old cars off the road. Given that 1990's cars are there in great numbers still, this won't be any time soon.

      Electric cars will not reduce the need for oil companies. There is a lot more to petroleum than just gasoline. I got one word for you - plastics. And electric cars use more plastic, since they need every ounce of weight savings they can get to compensate for battery weight.

      One thing I do see coming from this is a hard hit on the poor. Old cars are what they drive. If they are banned, they will be left at the mercy of rental/taxi fleet owners.
      • connected cars

        Connected-cars is a great idea! Requiring safe seperation distance, prevent multi-car pile-ups, improve traffic-flow,, & safe passing on hilly roads. All cars should b required to b connected in some system.
        Driverless-cars (DlC) has its place; Probably in fleets, like delivery, street survalence, utility-meter reading, & taxi. Also DlCs will b great 4 handicapped people to own or lease !
        • Each self-driving car increases overall safety and efficiency

          Connected cars won't do much good until all cars are connected, but each self-driving car increases overall safety and efficiency.
          Barry Sweezey
      • Safety

        If your car is less likely to have an accident, spending less on safety is warranted. If your car is less likely to cause an accident, it's less likely to be in one. By the time they're on the market, self-driving cars will be less likely to cause accidents.
        Barry Sweezey
    • Take away safety features and you lose willingness to get inside them.

      There are numerous causes of accidents and connected cars wont eliminate them. That and there's still going to be non connected cars and trucks on the roads for decades to come. And besides what's an Idea Festival doing focusing on driverless cars? That's a decades old idea. An Idea Festival should be a place where new ideas are born and discussed.
      Johnny Vegas
  • Driverless Cars

    I can hardly wait - wonder how many motorcycles and scooters get hit...
  • ....aaaand

    yearrrgh, can't wait for car that government would be piloting for me (with all the necessary permits). Coming soon is the sexbot that will replace the drudgery of sex.
    Tesla's Spark
    • Sounds like

      a socialist's dream. Control. That's why they love the choochoos so much.
      • Nextup

        Choiceless and freedomless existence.
  • HOV

    Does that mean with zero-occupancy vehicles on the road, solo drivers now qualify for the HOV lanes?
  • I like driving

    Leave me out of it.
  • Insurance and Law

    I think we will have the technology and improving upon it a ton before they even think about letting such a thing happen. To much risk and too much change for it to happen with any expediency
  • Wrong question brings wrong answer

    Anxious to see when the driverless and passengerless car is launched. Pure mechanics moving around with no accidents (at least with victims), no objective, less weight, more efficiency... no supply and demand, very economical!
  • Self Driving Cars an Everyday Thing Here

    Here in the Valley Google's self-driving cars are everyday things. They are on the freeways in the middle of the daily commute and on the city streets.
    Now these are not driverless cars, but autonomous. More like human-supervised cars.
  • Hopefully, those self-driving cars will come equipped with

    self-changing tires, or tires that never go flat and that nails/screws/glass can't penetrate. If a flat occurs on a freeway, the car can slow down and get off the road, but, who will change the flat? Most women just call the road service or tow truck people. The car can be equipped to handle the calling for emergency service, but the car won't be equipped to drive around the small obstacles/objects on the road.

    Also, there was no need to bring up the electric cars into the discussion. While the "fossil fuel" cars still cost less to own, and also give a longer range to the tank, and also don't take hours to "recharge", the EVs shouldn't even be part of the discussion. EVs need to resolve all of the issues inherent in the platform before they become practical for everyday use.
    • Why do you say a self-driving car won't be able to avoid small obstacles?

      Why do you say a self-driving car won't be able to avoid small obstacles?
      Barry Sweezey
      • Okay, so, what technology is available now, or being developed, which could

        give a self-driving car the ability to avoid nails or screws or glass, while going 30-80 mph down the highways and roads?

        BTW a small object like that is noticed and recognized as dangerous, the car may have gotten a flat or two.
  • Can't Stop The Future..

    Let's face it.. As much as we would like to debate, grim, or fight against new technology, or for some, new wild ideas.. This all holds for things to come. May not be an exact as what we see it today, but this is just THE GIANT MACHINE (Government), making use of the so-called new world technology. It's going to happen, maybe not in our current time. It's Technology at it's best and getting more frightening by the minute. look how fast everything is evolving now days.. Internet, Wireless, micro-tech, we are down to the molecular engineering of things. So sit back and take ride,, Griping won't stop what's to come.
    • I don't want to stop that future.

      Self-driving cars have the potential to save 30,000 lives a year in the US, and a million world-wide. I don't want to stop that future.
      Barry Sweezey