‘Autonomy’ Review: Fast-Tracking a Driverless Car

The Wall Street Journal
By Edward Niedermeyer

In 2004, a Defense Department agency, offering a prize of $1 million, challenged technologists to create a driverless vehicle that could travel roughly 150 miles through the Mojave Desert. At the time, the idea of a car autonomously navigating even empty roads seemed preposterous. Red Whittaker, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, set about forming a team to meet the challenge, admitting to his prospective members: “The race defies prevailing technology, and many hold that the challenge prize is unwinnable in our time.” That talented students of his like Chris Urmson put their lives on hold to join Mr. Whittaker’s team and work long hours on a problem that looked as if it might never be solved speaks volumes about the profound optimism that lurks inside the best engineers.


So far, the optimism has been well-rewarded. In the more than 14 years since the so-called Grand Challenge—in which the Whittaker team drove the longest distance—autonomous-drive technology has made enormous strides, and self-driving cars are now widely considered an inevitability. As for Mr. Urmson, he went on to serve as the project leader for Google’s self-driving car program—named Waymo—and has since started his own autonomous-drive technology company.


Not surprisingly, optimism leaps off the pages of Lawrence D. Burns’s “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How It Will Reshape Our World,” a combination of memoir and visionary manifesto. In contrast to “the personally owned, gasoline-powered, human-driven vehicles that have dominated the last century,” Mr. Burns writes, “we’re transitioning to mobility services based on electric-powered and driverless vehicles, paid for by trip or through subscriptions.” These services, he says, will get us around “safely and conveniently.” Meanwhile, we will avoid the “hassles of car ownership” and the time lost in parking and pumping gas, not to mention the costs that having a car entails.


Mr. Burns has been a longtime believer in cars ushering in a brighter future, first as head of research and development at General Motors and later as a consultant at Google. In “Autonomy,” he takes pains to portray himself as an outsider at GM: neither a “car guy” nor a “bean counter” but a reformer inspired by auto-industry critics like David Halberstam and Ralph Nader. Seeing the events of 9/11 as a product of Detroit’s oil addiction, he pushed GM, he says, toward the now-familiar goal of zero emissions and zero road deaths.


While Mr. Urmson and other autonomous-drive pioneers were working on their entrants in the 2004 Grand Challenge, Mr. Burns was pouring his engineer’s optimism into futuristic GM concept cars called Autonomy, HyWire and EN-V, all aimed at showing the way toward autonomous electric mobility. Their designs led to developments like the “skateboard” chassis that now underpins GM’s Chevrolet Bolt and Volt (and almost every other modern plug-in vehicle). But real change has come slow. Today the rhetoric from GM’s top leaders matches Mr. Burns’s lofty idealism, but the company’s bottom line shows that its financial well-being still relies heavily on its all-too-traditional staples of trucks and SUVs.


After leaving GM during its 2009 bankruptcy, Mr. Burns became an ever-more emphatic advocate for the reinvention of the automobile, soon teaming up with Mr. Urmson and other technology pioneers at Google. This front-row seat at the project that popularized autonomous cars informs some of the most lively parts of “Autonomy.” At one point, a milestone goal is thought to be needed, with a payout bonus, so when Larry Page (Google’s co-founder) says, “I want this thing on any street in California to drive one hundred percent autonomous,” the Larry1K challenge is launched. The development of Waymo’s “Firefly” low-speed driverless car takes longer than expected and teaches the Silicon Valley team a new respect for Detroit’s skills. In turned out that “designing a vehicle was comparatively easy,” Mr. Burns writes. What was difficult was “ ‘hardening’ the vehicle’s various components”—making every part work under every driving condition. This was “the process at which Detroit engineering talent excelled.” A deal with Ford Motor Co. fails, but an investment banker and analyst, inspired by one of Mr. Burns’s visionary papers, does join Ford on a driverless-car project. As Mr. Burns recounts, personality clashes eventually blew up Google’s dream team and led to a lawsuit over intellectual-property theft against Uber, which had bought a driverless-trucking company founded by a Waymo veteran.


Many sections of “Autonomy” extrapolate the future from the remarkable progress that Waymo has made in recent years. And, yes, Waymo vans are already providing on-demand driverless rides to members of the public. But so far the service reaches only about 400 riders in the ideal weather and traffic conditions of suburban Phoenix.


In fact, a period of rapid progress seems to be giving way to a host of challenges that can’t be solved with engineering talent alone: developing regulations, demonstrating safety, insuring liability risks, building trust, discovering workable business models. To take but one example: Nearly constant “uptime” (that is, revenue-producing use) will be needed to make expensive autonomous taxicabs work economically. Thus companies like Ford and Toyota, hoping to enter such a market, say that their robotaxis would have to be hybrids, not the slow-charging, pure electric cars of Mr. Burns’s vision.


Shared autonomous vehicles may well become, as Mr. Burns hopes, the backbone of personal transportation—and “Autonomy” will have the extra value of offering a history of the technological revolution that made it all possible. But between the heroic engineering feats Mr. Burns vividly documents and the safer and more efficient mobility he foresees lie challenges that will not be rapidly overcome.

Lawrence D Burns