With his access to so many players including Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Burns does a masterful job weaving the various strands of his story together. And a juicy story it is, filled with an insider’s first hand experiences and observations. Skeptics beware: you’ll be a lot less skeptical about the imminence of self-driving technology after reading this book.
A bit cheesy? Sure. But it’s purposeful cheese. For a text with intermittent chunks of technicality and calculations, the book has an undeniable velocity, in part because Shulgan, the reporter with a ghostwriting credit, knows how and when to ramp up the narrative stakes. It’s also probably rather important to note that Autonomy radically altered my perspective on AVs, largely because of Lawrence D. Burns ... He makes a number of irrefutable arguments about the environmental, safety, and financial benefits of AVs ... So Autonomy is good. It’s the best AV book to date. It is scenic and reported like the best pop nonfiction. It laces an evidence-based polemic throughout the DARPA [Grand Challenge] narrative. It provides an insider’s account of both Detroit’s 'car world' and Silicon Valley’s 'mobility world.'
This might read like the buzzkill PowerPoint of some progressive transportation think tank analyst. But Burns was, for many years, a vice president at General Motors ... The story he sets out to tell in Autonomy, aided by the writer Christopher Shulgan, is one of increasing disenchantment with the status quo in Detroit ... This is not exactly the realm of The Right Stuff. Here we have slow-moving cars bumbling through parking lots and patiently navigating four-way intersections. But you can sense the excitement in Burns, an engineer at heart ... The book is a passionately argued, you-were-there account of the birth and rise of the autonomous vehicle from an authoritative Detroit voice. Burns, a technological utopianist (and one of the first people to get a cochlear ear implant), makes a number of compelling arguments for why smaller, self-piloted, shared vehicles make sense. But we don’t hear much about that other great engine of the car business: consumer desire. Do people want to be driven? ... A larger question, not much discussed in Autonomy, is how much risk we are willing to accept to have autonomous vehicles. What role should ethics have in the programming: Do we prize safety over speed and efficiency? And who should be the ultimate arbiters of those decisions?
Not surprisingly, optimism leaps off the pages of Lawrence D. Burns’s Autonomy...a combination of memoir and visionary manifesto ... This front-row seat at the project that popularized autonomous cars informs some of the most lively parts of Autonomy ... 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 ... 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.
Both informative and slog-free, Lawrence D. Burns and Christopher Shulgan’s Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — And How It Will Reshape Our World succeeds for the same reason all great science writing does: its interest in people is par to its interest in objects ... The central narrative functions like a heist movie. The target is the Department of Defense’s off-road robot races in 2004, 2005, and 2008. The prize: $1 million for the first contest, $2 million thereafter ... As with any field’s emergent book-length work, Autonomy has gaps that future texts must fill. When it comes to the forthcoming automation-induced labor crisis, Autonomy mostly gestures toward oft-cited consultancy reports on massive job losses.
The drama, ambition and genius characterizing the race to develop self-driving cars zoom into sharper focus in Autonomy ... The chassis underpinning the book is Burns’ full-throated argument that self-driving cars 'will transform the way we live, the way we get around and the way we do business' ... Bottom line? The traditional auto industry, which Burns imprecisely refers to as 'Detroit,' has a visceral grasp of the pitfalls of moving too fast. Those risks cannot be shrugged off ...Autonomy comes to life when Burns reveals insights on infighting between former Google car project kings Chris Urmson and Anthony Levandowski, including well-documented accusations by Google that Levandowski stole secrets and took them to Uber.
In Autonomy, Burns narrates how robotics teams have taken hundreds of thousands of steps to train self-driving cars to react to the same obstacles to which human drivers react. And the story of that technological roadtrip is fascinating—especially to those of us who have heard pieces of the autonomy story but didn’t understand the ramifications of the self-driving Big Picture ... Autonomy helps us to understand this likely future reality by taking us back to the beginning of robotic transportation research. The book, however, is not an encyclopedic compilation of dry sequential facts ... the chapters unfold as stories with a mystery genre-like tone ... The authors blend dialogue from interviews; infuse historical contexts (i.e. the importance of drone imagery from Iraq and Afghan territories); trace a cast of unlikely, contradictory, and often combative tech team characters; and, unveil a play-by-play of robot races that reads like a whodunit.
Burns...offers a compelling, if one-sided, history of how three developments have converged to place us on the cusp of a revolution in personal mobility ... sensors, GPS-based mapping, and artificial intelligence ... advances in electric vehicles that drastically reduce the mechanical complexity and cost of vehicles and their environmental impact. Lastly, ride-sharing services ... Gear-heads and techies will both enjoy tracking the past and future of autonomous vehicles.
The author argues that the business of motorized transport is the most disruptable on the landscape, and while the writing is too often like traveling down a potholed road, the reasoning is sound, and the thought of not having to look for an empty parking space seems payoff aplenty for entertaining this modest proposal. A provocative look at a rising industry that may soon change the nature of the world’s too-busy roadways.