Howes: Self-driving cars are 'not a science-fiction story'
As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer uses her first budget address Tuesday to put dollars behind her plans to “fix the damn roads,” bolster K-12 education funding and expand skills training, General Motors Corp.’s former head of research and development has a warning:
“This age of automobility is for real,” Lawrence D. Burns, author of “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driveless Car — and How it Will Reshape Our World,” said in an interview. ”It’s not a science-fiction story. I worry our state is still on fragile ground. It’s not just the hourly worker. It’s the mid-career professional” who could be affected by the migration into software-enabled mobility, electrification and autonomy.
Burns should know. A Waterford native, he spent a career before GM's epic bankruptcy studying technology trends and alternative propulsion systems in autos in a continuing drive to seize opportunity or identify the next new thing that might relegate the century-old mechanical automotive model to the history books.
He left GM on Sept. 30, 2009, launching a second career of consulting, writing and serving as an adviser to Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo LLC self-driving unit, among others. Now he’s eager to sound an alarm for the new governor, chiefly because he predicts the tipping point toward Auto 2.0 could come as soon as the end of her current term.
If he had 20 minutes with Michigan’s new chief executive, he says, he’d make three basic points: that self-driving vehicles powered by electric motors are real; that they will “take off” in three to five years, redirecting the capital-investment decisions of both the industry and its investors; and, third, that when the tipping point is reached it will have profound implications for both white- and blue-collar jobs in Michigan's bedrock auto industry.
"What you have in these companies is people with fundamental knowledge that is no longer relevant in the industry," Burns said. Or it won't be when battery-powered electrics begin to displace internal-combustion engines in meaningful numbers and, say, emissions-testing engineers are rendered obsolete. Or when software further supplants mechanics as the beating heart and thinking minds of next-gen transportation.
One of his epiphanies, detailed in a chapter of the same name, came nearly 15 years ago at GM's Vehicle Assessment Center, "a massive warehouse about the size of five football fields where our engineers broke down into their component parts any vehicle we found interesting."
When Burns arrived, his colleague ushered him to three bays inside the center. Each held the remains of a dismembered vehicle — a common, gas-powered Chevrolet Malibu, a Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid and an electric "E-Flex Architecture" GM engineers were developing at the time. The contrast was stunning, prompting Burns to call then-CEO Rick Wagoner and urge him to make a visit.
What they saw, in vivid detail, "was that these new electric vehicles were much simpler than conventional automobiles," Burns writes. "With one-tenth the parts, the electric vehicle was a lot easier to make. Not only did an electric vehicle have fewer parts, it also had fewer moving parts than a conventional automobile.
"Take the gasoline out of the vehicle, and you don't need a heavy engine block to contain any explosions happening within the cylinders. You didn't need an exhaust system with a muffler and a catalytic converter to clean the vehicle's emissions. You didn't need spark plugs or carburetors, or valves or fan belts to cool it. Nor did you require a fuel-injection system or an automatic transmission."
Lying in front of them was nuts, bolts and sheet-metal proof of "the profoundly different scale of manufacturing an electric vehicle" ... which "would require far fewer employees to assemble the vehicle. Like one-tenth the number of employees. And because they were comparatively simple to make, they'd open up the manufacturing of America's vehicles to more brands."
Burns continues: "With electric vehicles, the crucial expertise was no longer going to be mechanical. Not with an electric engine. Not with drive-by-wire controls. The crucial expertise in electric vehicles was software."
"What you're showing me," Burns recalls Wagoner saying, "spells the end to the integrated auto industry as we know it."
That's the message the governor needs to hear, that state and federal lawmakers should understand, that folks luxuriating in Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV's announcement of new manufacturing investments in Detroit and Warren cannot deny: the tech-heavy auto industry of the not-too-distant future will require fewer people with greater software chops to make the wheels turn.
It promises to be the most profound change since Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line more than 100 years ago, or since the Detroit transformed its auto and truck plants into the "Arsenal of Democracy" whose industrial might helped the allies win World War II.
As growing populations increasingly crowd into urban centers, technology and battery-powered transportation are emerging as effective methods to manage congestion and answer environmental restrictions in China, the European Union and the major coastal cities of the United States. The net effect is to loosen the traditional auto industry's quasi-monopoly on personal transportation.
Auto 2.0 promises to need more brain and less brawn, a transformation whose implications are staggering all by themselves. Overlay the skills gap and woeful performance of K-12 education across the state, and the crisis of Whitmer's telling becomes all the more acute — if not existential to Michigan's economic future.
Waymo parent "Alphabet can afford to swing and miss on autonomous cars," Burns said. "GM can't afford to swing and miss. Nor can Ford. If she doesn't acknowledge all of this, we're in trouble."
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.