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Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World

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An automotive and tech world insider investigates the quest to develop and perfect the driverless car—an innovation that promises to be the most disruptive change to our way of life since the smartphone

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution. Soon, few of us will own our own automobiles and instead will get around in driverless electric vehicles that we summon with the touch of an app. We will be liberated from driving, prevent over 90% of car crashes, provide freedom of mobility to the elderly and disabled, and decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. 

Autonomy is the story of the maverick engineers and computer nerds who are creating the revolution. Longtime advisor to the Google Self-Driving Car team and former GM research and development chief Lawrence D. Burns provides the perfectly-timed history of how we arrived at this point, in a character-driven and heavily reported account of the unlikely thinkers who accomplished what billion-dollar automakers never dared.

Beginning with the way 9/11 spurred the U.S. government to set a million-dollar prize for a series of off-road robot races in the Mojave Desert up to the early 2016 stampede to develop driverless technology, Autonomy is a page-turner that represents a chronicle of the past, diagnosis of the present, and prediction of the future—the ultimate guide to understanding the driverless car and navigating the revolution it sparks.

368 pages, ebook

First published August 28, 2018

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Lawrence D. Burns

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 113 reviews
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
789 reviews1,187 followers
March 10, 2019
If you own a car, you know what a headache and huge responsibility (not to mention expense!) they can be. If you rely on public transportation, you know how limiting and unreliable it is (at least in most places in the USA) and how long you often have to wait. It's difficult for most of us to get around without our own vehicle, and yet we have to invest a lot in them. Imagine if you could have all the benefits of owning a car, with none of the responsibilities. Interested? Read on.

Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World is an exciting look at the current developments and trends in autonomous vehicles. We are quickly approaching the day when we no longer will have to make a costly investment to own a vehicle if we want/need to have one that is available for us at any time, to take us anywhere we want to go. We will no longer have to worry about an expensive repair if something goes wrong, not have to bother with cleaning and servicing them (hurray!), not have to stress about commuting in heavy traffic or dealing with irate drivers. Instead, the day is soon coming when vehicles will be completely autonomous and on-demand. Need a ride? Pull out your phone and request one, much the same as you'd request a ride with Uber or Lyft. Within minutes, a small but comfortable vehicle pulls up in front of you and takes you where you want to go. No steering, no sweating, no swearing! (Hmmm... I might miss that part; I do love to partake in a bit of verbal road rage at times. It gets rid of other stress, what can I say?) . You can sit back and enjoy the scenery, or safely(!) text or check your email, or read a book. When you reach your destination, you do not have to worry about finding parking, but are simply deposited right where you need to be; the car then heads off to pick up the next rider or parks itself.

This book was quite interesting, not because I'm crazy about cars -- I'm not -- but because I think artificial intelligence is kick-ass cool and I look forward to the day where I will no longer need to own a vehicle. Lawrence D. Burns provides an in-depth look at the history of and the research into creating autonomous vehicles at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford Universities and within Google (Waymo), Tesla, Uber, GM, and others. It is fascinating what all goes on, how the vehicles are taught and how they learn to operate on their own. I would never have thought about the things that need to be programmed in, such as how to predict what a cyclist might do, how to tell that a person carrying a huge canvas is actually a person and not something else, how to know its own shadow and that it is not something it needs to worry about hitting. The vehicle needs to know not only what things are, but predict how each thing might move. There are thousands of behavioral rules a vehicle must learn, things we who drive are often unaware of even knowing.

Some of the perks of a driverless society are:

•Better for the environment
○Currently, "... only about 5 percent of the gasoline energy translated into motion is used to move the driver, which amounts to just 1.5 percent of the total energy in gasoline." Often there is only the driver in the car, so that's a lot of energy being wasted.

•Less space needed for parking lots and parking garages
"...we pave over big swathes of valuable real estate in our cities, creating asphalt heat islands that elevate urban temperatures and may contribute to climate change." Because there will be a lot fewer vehicles on the road, and because those vehicles will be smaller, much of the space currently given to parking our vehicles can be transformed into public parks or provide places for new buildings and homes.

•Lower costs
"...our research suggested that driverless electric vehicles tailor-designed for shared transportation service in U.S. cities could reduce the out-of-pocket and time costs of conventional automobile travel by more than 80 percent (from $1.50 per mile to $0.25 per mile)."

•Improved safety
○There are 1.3 million roadway fatalities that happened around the world each year and the number is rising. That's about 3,000 lives lost a day due to vehicle accidents, 90% of those due to human error. The driverless cars of the future will be much safer. For instance,
"A good human driver has his eyes on the road ahead and conducts checks around the vehicle as often as possible. But the Google car had sensors all around it. It knew what was happening ahead, as well as to the right and the left, and behind—at all times." And it's not distracted by a smartphone notification!

It thrills me to know there are already self-driving-capable cars on the roads, and improvements are being made all the time. We have a way to go, I think, before we can transition to a fully driverless society, but the benefits are many. There is much left to work out, and certainly there will be jobs lost to this transition as well. Mr. Burns briefly addresses this issue in the book as well.

There will be be some who do not welcome this transition because they enjoy driving. Well, "You know what? There were people who liked to ride horses.” . Yet most of us are quite happy to not rely on them for our transportation needs!

I did find parts of this book dull; for me, there were a bit too many details of business deals and the author's history of working with GM. He enjoyed patting himself on the back in the book too, which I found irritating. I think it could have done with a better edit, but for the most part I found the book enlightening and enjoyable. If you're interested in the future of AI, whether or not you're interested in cars, you'll probably find this book interesting.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,638 reviews329 followers
April 2, 2020
Tech history, starting with the DARPA self-driving challenge races in 2004. His info is good; his writing is, well, adequate. But the material pretty much makes up for that. 3.5 stars, rounded down for the fluff and filler. Book needed a more critical final edit, which you, the reader, will have to supply.

For an old GM guy, the author sure is anti-personal car, and anti-gasoline. And he goes on, and on, and on. Big cars! One driver! Unused 95% of the time! Yada, yada.

Early self-driving players included the Carnegie-Mellon robotics lab (Pittsburgh) and later, the Stanford robotics people.

Google’s Chauffeur self-driving project was launched in late 2008, with Sebastian Thrum as CEO and Chris Urmson as chief engineer. Intital goal: drive the toughest roads in California. Street View photos central to project. Lots of interesting info, as this is the project he's been personally involved in.

First trial: the Big Sur highway! This one was pretty easy, except for the software bugs -- and the cliffs! (It’s not the fall, it’s the sudden stop.) Second trial: El Camino Real, from Palo Alto to San Jose airport. 200 traffic lights! Cyclists! Pedestrians! Congestion! Impressive that they could patch code on the fly. This took a month of hard work.

Freeway driving on the Peninsula/South Bay: “The jerk came out of nowhere!” Robot anticipated the sudden cut-off. Better than a human driver! Your reviewer can testify to the jerks, and the PITA driving at rush hour (anytime, really) in the Bay Area. Avoid Rush Hour at all costs! -- if you can...

Their reception in Detroit: “They just kind of laughed and thought it was cute that we were doing this.” A 2011 Chrysler TV commercial:
“ …. An unmanned car driven by a search-engine company. We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.” And as the muscle car accelerates past the camera, the voice concludes, “This is the all-new 2011 Dodge Charger. Leader of the human resistance.”

Author’s 2011 consulting report to Google (which goes on *forever*):
His guess is, electric self-driving car-on-demand service for 20c./mi. Is this realistic? Who knows? They don’t exist yet (electric self-driving taxis).
Further guesses: they could initially capture 10% of the American market of around 300 billion commuter miles per year.
Potential profit = 10c./mi = $30 billion/yr. Whoa! Competitors?
Again, who knows if this is realizable? But lots of interest, and serious money invested, now including the previously-reluctant car companies. Sensibly, people are building self-driving versions of existing cars. Many of the newer models (Prius, Tesla, Chrysler Pacifica) are "drive by wire," easily converted to computer-control.

Google’s test of Driver Assist, their earlier version of Tesla’s Autopilot: “what convinced the team to halt testing was the guy who fell asleep, for an astonishing twenty-seven minutes, as he cruised along at 60 mph on the freeway. “

Tesla’s Autopilot was a really bad idea, as it was promoted by Elon Musk: Beta software that has killed (so far) three drivers. Google warned against it: “We understand how hard this is. This will not work.”

Estimated 1.3 million roadway fatalities per year, worldwide. (Many fewer in the developed world. 37,500 in US in 2016.). Humans are TERRIBLE drivers! “… more than ninety percent of accidents are caused by humans.” — Kevin Krafcik, CEO Waymo. So, lots of potential for saving lives with self-driving cars.

Per author, Waymo (Google) is now offering limited fully-autonomous taxi service in Phoenix, as of 2018.
Profile Image for Barry.
202 reviews4 followers
September 29, 2018
I was at the Urban Challenge in 2007 (still have the T shirt). It was amazing standing next to the road watching cars and trucks go by with no one in them, including 32,000-pound TerraMax, which had to be deactivated before it took out a building. The MIT entry kept braking for shadows across the road.

One car was confused about something and came to a stop. Another car started going around it, and as soon as it started pulling in front, the stopped car decided to go, and there was a low speed collision. The race was paused and the cars were soon surrounded by an army of engineers who were relieved to find no damage. The cars were separated and allowed to continue.

I saw the cars handle four-way stops, driving in traffic with human drivers and parking in a lot. First and second place went to expected leaders Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, but third place went to Virginia Tech. Later I learned that elsewhere in the crowd were Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who soon started the Google self-driving car project.
Profile Image for Joe.
184 reviews7 followers
November 28, 2018
Want to understand autonomous cars? Start here

No, seriously. This book goes all the way back to concept cars like Sandstorm and Autonomy to today's developers like Tesla, Uber and Waymo. Complete with the office politics, the engineering and the political problems.

I also recommend reading "The Upstarts" as a companion to this book. Helps when I read that one first.

However, this book never really addresses the issue of what will happen to public transit. Food for thought left to your imagination, but understand this: Autonomous electric cars will make personal transportation much, much more cheaper.
Profile Image for Joonas Kiminki.
40 reviews2 followers
September 4, 2018
A beautifully written view into the past, present and future of mobility. I hugely enjoyed the fluent storytelling and balanced handling of the topics covered, respecting the accomplishents of both Detroit and Silicon Valley.

I don’t always rate my books ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ but when I do, they deserve it. This story changed my perception for good, even if I admit being looking for such perspective update.
3 reviews12 followers
March 5, 2019
The book focuses too much on the author's personal experience working with the Google team and downplays or glosses over almost all others' contributions.
Profile Image for Brian Ferrell.
21 reviews1 follower
December 6, 2019
Insider look at the self driving car industry for nerds who are into that.
Profile Image for Jeff Kim.
127 reviews4 followers
March 8, 2020
This is a brilliant account of the past, present and future of Autonomous Vehicles and the transport system.

The author makes the point that the auto industry has largely remained unchanged in its 130 year history. Current vehicles are still ape-driven, addicted to oil, unnecessarily bulky, sit idle 90% of the time and devilishly expensive to own and maintain. They are not ideal for city transportation factoring their size and dangerous speeds. Everything about them screams waste.

The auto industry has reached an inflection point. We have to severe the relationship between transportation and vehicle ownership. The future of transportation will very likely be:
1. Autonomous - AI driven vehicles. These has the potential to eliminate about 90% of the annual 1.3 million deaths on the road. Hardware and software is several orders of magnitude more reliable than apes.
2. Electric - or fuel cells?. Will curtail the rate at which we are pumping carbon into the atmosphere and simplifies vehicle architecture(No engine, transmission, exhaust systems etc).
3. Shared - It will be bad economics to own a personal car, given how cheap(on cost per mile basis) autonomous electric vehicles would be. E.g 70%-90% of an Uber trip goes to the driver. This cost is simply deleted for a completely autonomous vehicle.

Highly recommended - It may prove though to be a difficult read if hardware and software is not your cup of tea.
Profile Image for Andrea.
69 reviews
May 10, 2019
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. I saw Lawrence Burns speak on the concept of autonomy (the confluence of electric vehicles, self-driving technology, and transportation-as-a-service) and was intrigued enough to pick up the book.

Overall, it's an animated and engaging narrative of the major players who developed the world's first autonomous vehicles. I loved his stories about the DARPA 2004 challenge to build a vehicle that could cross the Mojave Desert without a human driver. He made a great point: that moment was a perfect example of how public funding can spur massive technological innovation, which ultimately led to private sector adoption and spurred economic growth.

All in all, recommended reading. And I'm looking forward to the near future where I can hop into my quiet, safe, autonomously driven vehicle. The future of transportation is looking bright, folks.
Profile Image for Susan.
135 reviews
January 9, 2022
A very engaging and interesting read about the history of self-driving cars, from the DARPA challenge post 9/11, to the Google Chauffeur project which later became Waymo, Tesla's assisted highway driving, and the many new endeavors in the field. There is a good deal of engineering details involved, which I enjoyed, but wish there were more! There is some fluff about the interpersonal dramas between the Chauffeur leads that felt a little extra.

Overall this book is a really comprehensive overview of self driving cars and our endeavors towards a more autonomous, shared, electric and tailored future of transportation.
Profile Image for Ross.
753 reviews30 followers
November 28, 2018
Interesting history of the development of self-driving vehicles from the beginning of the idea around 2000 up to the beginning of 2018 by one of the key engineer executives working on the designs.
I wish there were a good deal more about the actual technology, rather than just the companies and people involved.
93 reviews
September 4, 2018
Great read> This will change your view of the future. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Farhan Lalji.
73 reviews7 followers
January 3, 2019
If you're interested in autonomous vehicles and the future of automobiles then this is a great read. Found it engaging and enlightening.
32 reviews
October 27, 2019
Larry Burns, an industry insider obsessed with reinventing the automotive industry, serves as a great narrator.
The story shifts between his personal accounts and introductions to the major players in the AV field.

Also provides a decent overview of the main technical and ethical considerations when designing autonomous vehicles.
Profile Image for Saleem.
107 reviews6 followers
February 6, 2022
I enjoyed reading a book on technology that I am very much interested in. If you want to learn about the history of autonomous cars and learn about the vision of future transportation, Autonomy delivers deep insights into where the technology stands, the roller coaster ride to date, and how the future of car transportation may unfold. Recommended!
Profile Image for Daniel.
4 reviews
September 26, 2018
Overall a good read on the history and major players in the AV space. My major complaint is that the author only acknowledges the positive AV scenario, but doesn’t consider things such as more vehicle miles traveled due to the fact that the car is driving for you, or potentially worse congestion depending on how ownership plays out. Google “heaven or hell autonomous vehicles” for a more balanced perspective.
Profile Image for Ken Hamner.
371 reviews5 followers
September 27, 2018
One of the best books I’ve read about emerging technologies and the impact they will have. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Pete.
809 reviews52 followers
September 7, 2018
Autonomy : The Quest to Build the Driverless Car - And How It Will Reshape Our World (2018) by Lawrence D Burns and Christopher Shulgan is the first insider account of efforts by big companies to create self-driving vehicles. 

Burns worked for decades for General Motors and was a Vice President there and he has a PhD so he knows GM and Detroit intimately. He also points the billions of dollars that Detroit has poured into research for fuel cells and other technology. 

This book looks at the way the self-driving car was developed from the 2006 Darpa Challenge onwards. The earlier work at Carnegie Mellon and by Mercedes is not mentioned. Nor, unfortunately are the role that Neural Networks have played. 

The book concentrates on the people who entered the 2006 Darpa challenge, in particular Red Whittaker and Chris Urmson. There drive and the Stanford team lead by Sebastian Thrun are also profiled. It's a pretty enjoyable read. The challenges of getting equipment that works and writing the software is brought to life. 

The book then shifts to Google's Chauffeur project that would eventually become Waymo. Here the drive and targets and challenges of the effort are well portrayed and Burns also joins the team. 

The book concludes in the present (mid to late 2018) with Waymo on the cusp of launching their first autonomous taxi service. The fatalities caused by Tesla and Waymo are also gone into in some depth. 

For anyone who is interested in self-driving cars and the future of mobility the book is well worth a read. Burns is a smart insider who has a great deal of interesting material to work with. He also provides a really interesting perspective of the different cultures of Detroit and Silicon and how they are now interacting. The only downside of the book is that there is little real insight into how remarkable the technology is. No doubt other books will follow that examine the remarkable developments of Lidar, neural networks and big data that are enabling autonomous vehicles. 
Profile Image for Stephen.
26 reviews1 follower
September 23, 2018
The definitive history of AVs to date

if you want to understand where we are and how we got here, read this book. Balances technical and non technical concepts well. Tells the story of all the key milestones with first hand accounts in many cases. Burns himself has had a front row seat and makes this far more engaging as a result. A couple minor bits seem excluded, such as shift away from Google's custom vehicle, firefly.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
56 reviews1 follower
September 22, 2018

The book is full of great stories and Burns’s first-person account of what happened in the development of autonomous and non-gas vehicles. It also tells stories about some of the key contributors to the technology--Chris Urmson, Red Whittaker, Sebastian Thrun, Anthony Levandowski, and others. The book combines these anecdotes with reflections on technical and economic changes affecting the automobile industry.

Burns is an advisor to Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car subsidiary. He worked at GM for 40 years, eventually serving as corporate vice president for research and development reporting to the CEO. He was unusual--as Detroit car executive who cared deeply about sustainability. He sponsored projects like hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems and a collaboration with Segway that built a two-wheeled, two-person electric vehicle that looks a little like an auto rickshaw without a driver.

Burns sees three trends coming together that will transform the automotive industry:
Driverless technology
Electric vehicles
Transportation as a service
The first two are technical changes. The third is a new business model.

The book begins with a narrative about the DARPA autonomous vehicle challenges, particularly the CMU team that was funded by GM. The Stanford team enters the story, and it continues when a set of them wind up working on Google’s Chauffeur project.

The story mixes in more background about engineering these systems. Burns did some modeling work around 2010-2011 to see how transport-as-a-service would work. He found a surprisingly small fleet could serve a city like Ann Arbor, Mich.

He also looked at total costs of our current cars-- $4.5 trillion/year to operate. If we make a large-scale transition to autonomous, electric vehicles, it will represent a tremendous economic improvement. Transportation should cost 10x less per mile, bring the benefits of on-demand cars to many more people. These savings mean less money flowing to established economic players. Auto manufacturing would employ many fewer people, which will be a burden for people employed by the industry today.

Oil companies probably get the majority of this $4.5 trillion. We need to shift away from fossil fuels, but oil companies are going to fight to preserve this revenue. Electric cars will be far more efficient than big gas-powered automobiles that often just carry one or two people. But we’ll probably still rely on fossil fuels to produce much of the electricity.

He talks about safety, which comes up a in a few different guises. Early on there’s someone at GM appalled at the way CMU was testing the Boss car for the DARPA challenge. (Funny story.) Sadly there have been fatalities recently--both Tesla drivers and a pedestrian killed by an Uber self-driving car test. There are two distinct approaches that are being pursued right now. One is the driver assist technology like Tesla autopilot, and another is the fully driverless car--the Firefly prototype doesn’t have a steering wheel, just an on-off button. He’s deeply skeptical of driver assistance, and probably appalled at the way Tesla and Musk seems to down-play the serious risks of driver assistance.

Profile Image for Tim Dugan.
569 reviews3 followers
September 6, 2018
Good info

But why are electrics so rare? Why no self driving? Those are the obvious questions

But also, he said electric cars will be cheaper....why is Tesla so damn pricy?

And one of the things a fleet of taxis won’t handle: rush hour. This has to be solved by better mass transit. Here in houston—everywhere?—it sucks

11 reviews1 follower
December 3, 2021
Read this book just out of genuine curiosity on the developments of driverless cars, and found it to be a highly informative book on the engineering and technology that went into the cars, as well as the history and politics around the topic.
Would recommend if engineering is something that interests you.
Profile Image for Jim Duncan.
221 reviews3 followers
September 1, 2019
Cannot say enough good things about this book. Have recommended it to colleagues and family members. Bought copies for my sons since this book makes a compelling argument for alternative fuels, transportation on demand and autonomous vehicles.
April 30, 2020
Autonomy: The Quest to build the driverless car was an intriguing novel that depicted the development of self-driving cars over the last few decades. This book was given to me by my dad who thought I might enjoy reading about it since I like cars, so i decided to give it a read. The author, Lawrence D. Burns, was a former General Motors executive and current advisor to the Google self-driving car project which gave him valuable insight into the development of the driverless car revolution.
The book itself was one big story of several engineers who work on developing driverless vehicles, and each section of the book has a different focus for the car. The first and what I thought was most interesting part of the book discussed the Carnegie Mellon team and how they designed their car to compete in the DARPA competition. This competition had teams design a car that could drive a race spanning a few hundred miles in the desert, all while avoiding obstacles. The motive behind such an event was to promote the development of driverless technology which would help soldiers avoid lethal obstacles such as landmines in Afghanistan. Throughout the rest of the novel, Burns tells stories of other various competitions such as the second DARPA event, his time at GM, and even other interesting stories such as the first fully-autonomous pizza delivery. Throughout the stories, one can observe the development of the technology used to make the semi-autonomous cars and the people who strive to make them a reality.
Since this is a non-fiction book that recounts real-life events, the story has not ended - but just begun. Burns leaves the audience with what he believes the future of the auto industry will look like (obviously with driverless cars). Easily the best part of the book for myself was how he put in perspective the integration of self-driving cars into society by referencing the very beginning of the auto industry. He makes note that back when cars were first invented, people mostly rode horses, and very few people drove a car. Now, pretty much no one rides horses as their primary mode of transportation, and there are still people who ride horses, but there are designated spots for them. Burns believes that cars will see the same fate as horse riding - uncommon but not extinct.
I personally liked the book, and it really went in-depth about the self-driving car. This is an idea that kids in the seventies or eighties saw in their cartoons but could never conceive the idea of this becoming a reality in their adult lives. As for the subject of the novel, I can’t see myself owning a self-driving car in the near future. There’s something about the thrill of driving a car that one will not get from self-driving cars. Don’t get me wrong, self-driving cars will be safer, more efficient, and easier to operate (no kidding) than a manual car, but I’m not completely on board with the idea quite yet. This is a future that seems inevitable, so I’ll either see myself sitting in a metal cage being driven around by a computer, or I’ll find myself with the other non-conformists over in the horse paddock.
Profile Image for Senthil Kumaran.
164 reviews18 followers
March 2, 2019
This book reminded me of "The Road Ahead" by Bill Gates. This is an impressive account on Self Driving Technology, that is about to come and consume us in the near future. The book is very well written. Initially, I had plenty of doubts on the author, Lawrence D Burn's style, thinking that he was one of the pure management type guys, looking at things in a disconnected way, trying to associate himself with changes brought about by others. I was proven wrong. This attitude transformed into respect for the author as I followed his journey along. I started appreciating his insights, his outlook towards this project, his commitments, and really understood where he was coming from when the author provided more context into his own up bringing and background. He provided the view from Detroit, that many following the self-driving space will miss, and it an important viewpoint to consider.

The book starts with the DARPA race, narrates the events, and stories of people who are shaping this story. GM, and Google play a very important role in the story. The book shines in presenting, well researching personal accounts from various actors like Red Whitaker, Chris Urmson, Sebastian Thrun, Larry Page, Antony Levandowski, Travis Kalanick, as well as many people from the top management in established car companies. It was good to get a first hand account on how people running established businesses think, and make decisions. It also shares the grit, and adventures of engineers who work to push the envelop of the possibilities. The book indirectly highlights the value/policy stances taken by companies such as Waymo, Tesla, and Uber pursuing self driving technology after giving the backround on the limitations of the technology, which were known to everyone developing it. It should be noted that as of 2019, Tesla and Uber have both been responsible for loss of lives with their pursuit of this adventure, and both have escaped consequences for their mistakes.

With all the events, book lays the solid ground for what is to come and expected in the next few years or decades for Autonomy. I will count this book as one of the good business books that I have read in recent years.
Profile Image for Carolyn Lochhead.
317 reviews4 followers
October 16, 2020
It felt very timely to read this book now, both because it feels like we’re in the middle of a shift from one era to another, as we grapple with keeping the world going despite COVID-19, and because I’ve just bought an electric car, so have been thinking a lot about the impact of cars on the environment.

In truth, this book probably had a bit too much engineering detail for me, so I won’t pretend I studied every word closely. But the bits that interested me were those that focused on the inefficiency of our current system, the massive potential to transform it and the initial blinkered resistance of those who benefit from the current approach.

Many of us are wedded to our car, because it’s so convenient to hop in and drive wherever we want. But there’s no denying that most cars sit idle most of the time, and that the effect of everyone seeking this type of freedom is counterproductive- we get stuck in traffic, our streets aren’t safe for kids to play in and the air we breathe is polluted.

This book argues that automated electric cars will solve all of these problems. We won’t need to own a car: we’ll just summon one, which will arrive within a few minutes, drive us to our destination with no input from us and then zoom off for the next passenger. No inefficiency, no pollution and greater equality, because even people with physical disabilities which would prevent them from driving will be able to use these services.

Burns sets out in detail how the journey to develop automated cars has progressed, from US Government-sponsored competitions to Google’s massive investment, firstly in creating the maps for cars to follow and then in doggedly testing every aspect, logging thousands of miles as they fixed bugs and added safety features.

As someone who worked hard to gain confidence in driving, I can’t help feeling sad that those skills are about to become obsolete. But there’s no denying the strength of Burns’ arguments - and as he points out, a lot of people probably liked horses and carts too. He makes a very persuasive case that in terms of how we get around, the world will be unrecognisable in 10-15 years.
71 reviews1 follower
October 14, 2018
Burns is a former GM exec who for years engaged in the thankless task of reforming the company from within, to steer it toward a greener future. He scored some successes by securing GM sponsorship of prestigious teams in autonomous driving competitions in the early 2000’s, but ultimately inertia of the old guard combined with economic downturns and bankruptcy convinced him that he could effect more change by being outside of GM than staying within.
This is a riveting insider tale of the first decades in the quest for developing and marketing autonomous vehicles. Featuring enough technical information to give geeks something to enjoy while not burying the reader with arcane engineering detail, this work strikes the perfect mix. The chapters on the first DARPA autonomous vehicle challenges are particularly compelling and are told in a vivid, page-turning manner.
The author retells the many personal conflicts that plagued the business in the later years, some of which impacted him, but by and large he manages to put his personal biases aside and tell the story in an informative and reasonable manner. However, despite his intentions, the reader can still detect an anti-Uber tilt, although he is open about his allegiances and interests. Another improvement could have been to address some of the autonomous vehicle activity outside of North America. While North America in general and the Detroit-Silicon Valley rivalry (which eventually, as he points out, became a collaboration) in particular were a clear driving force in the development of the autonomous car, there could have been a few more comments on what was happening outside the continent. Ethical issues, too, could have benefited from a little more coverage.
But these are quibbles. Written in a very readable style by a man with deep knowledge of the car business, this is an excellent introduction to the field and a must-read for all who want to know how we got here and where we’re going. It will make you an optimist.
Profile Image for Dennis D..
291 reviews22 followers
July 30, 2020
Larry Burns shares the compelling story of the ongoing quest to bring fully driverless transportation technology to the mass-market. He does a great job of relating everything that went on behind the scenes to bring this technology into existence, much of it through first-person accounts. He also very forthrightly explains why this tech is necessary, by shining a bright light on the inefficiencies of the U.S. car-based system: there’s a .8 to 1 ratio of drivers to cars, most cars sit idle for 22.5 hours every day on average, the car uses most of its energy to move itself and not its passenger(s), most miles are driven with just an average of 1.7 people aboard - just 1.1 for work commutes! - and yet auto accidents are still consistently the leading cause of death for those aged 39 or younger. This is his thesis statement, and he sums it up by quoting author and journalist Edward Humes:
“In almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane”.

I started out skeptical, not of the inevitability of driverless technology, but that it would happen as rapidly as Burns was suggesting, especially when Uber (and to a lesser extent, Lyft) were cast as early heroes of trying for upend the auto industry’s stranglehold on transportation in the U.S. This book was published in 2018, and it takes us through Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepping down, but only in the context of Uber stealing Google’s autonomous car technology; no mention of them ripping off their drivers, scamming regulators, or having a hyper-toxic corporate culture. In making his case, Burns is clear-eyed about the early and public failures of some of the participants (Elon Musk and Tesla do not show up well here), but by the end brings it home. We may not get our flying cars anytime soon, but we’ll sharing the road with robot cars before you know it.
Profile Image for Bernard Tan.
232 reviews
January 27, 2022
Autonomy - written by Larry Burns, the former head of R&D of General Motors - tells the story of the development of the autonomous car from the first DARPA challenge, to GMs own attempt and misteps in the field, to Google's development of the Firefly self driving car. It is a story of engineering challenges, missed opportunities and amazing achievements. This book is highly rated in Goodreads.

Technology has enabled us to reach this stage. And with this, there is a compelling case for the present car ownership model to be disrupted. The average number of passengers in an average American car is less than two. The average car spends 95% of its time parked. To cater to these parked cars, the number of car parking lots far exceed to total number of cars, taking up valuable real estate. While people may enjoy driving, no one enjoys their work commute because of crazy jams. If rides are shared - with each car having two passengers instead of one - the traffic in major cities can be halved, with the consequent benefit of lower emissions and fresher air. If served by autononous vehicles, models show that current urban centres require only a fraction of the number of vehicles. Moreover, autonomous cars offers the promise of a huge reduction in car accidents and fatalities. Mobility as a service - instead of car ownership - is the future.

If there is a criticism, it is that the target audience for this book is unclear. It is certainly too basic for those familiar with the challenges of making an autonomous car. I would have loved to understand more of the sensing and navigation challenges. On the other hand, it is also way too detailed in certain ways for the average reader. Burns persists in going into a blow by blow account of various events and lengthy descriptions of competing individuals, which is unnecessary to tell the story.

Worth a read, especially if the topic of autonomy is new to you.
Profile Image for Tamara A..
32 reviews
February 27, 2022
I have several issues with his idealistic life of self driving cars. First he kept going on and on about how great 2 seater cars would be. How is a family of 3 or more supposed to get around in one of those? Strap the extra family members to the roof or use them as hood ornaments?

If your by yourself and have a weeks worth of groceries with you, where do those go?

What if you require the use of a wheel chair, scooter, walker, rollerator, to help with mobility issues? Where do you put that?

Public transportation only exists in major metropolitan cities and immediately surrounding areas? That is great for people who like living in overcrowded sardine cans called cities that are extremely expensive to live in. Those of us in small and tiny town rural areas won't get served at all by public transportation of any kind. With no more personally owned vehicles because they are made too expensive to purchase at all, I guess they're just screwed.

Being forced to use services such as Uber or Lyft really bites when you have to use them for grocery shopping or getting to doctor appointments on time. I had to do that for 2 months while looking for a new to me vehicle. My previous one was destroyed by roadside assistance. The last Uber driver I had to use not only dropped me off at my doctor appointment 30 minutes late, she kept going off route, but also started trying to give me medical advice about my medical condition. Well let's just say that I was very unhappy with that. By the time she got me there the office was locked up and everyone was gone. I was the last appointment for the day.

Stop trying to guilt trip me about the only vehicle I own that gets me where I need to go when I need to be there. You only tick me off.

The other thing that was never talked about is what keeps these autopilot cars from getting hacked either by accident or intent? What keeps these cars from trying to drive down a river instead of a road? Or just send you flying off a steep cliff?
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