ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Self-driving vehicles, once thought to be a thing far in the future, will be available by 2020, Larry Burns, former head of r&d at General Motors, said Monday.
Speaking at the University of Michigan Robotics Day, Burns relayed a vision in which shared fleets of driverless vehicles will transport people to and from their destinations while they use their time as desired. Upon arrival at the destination, the vehicle would then be sent to another, close location to serve someone else.
Burns said the vision allows for fewer, lighter vehicles in cities, no crashes, lower emissions, and greater time spent doing necessary or enjoyed activities.
"Most people spend 60-90 minutes in the car a day. If we could give that time back to them, that would be very valuable," Burns said. "We're talking enormous opportunity and self-driving vehicles are going to make that possible. It's rethinking the entire system of mobility."
Burns has shared his research with Google, which has logged thousands of miles testing self-driving cars on public roads.
Google has been experimenting with autonomous cars for years in California with a fleet of six driverless Toyota Prius models and an Audi TT. The vehicles have radar and video cameras that locate the car's position on the map and watch for stop lights and obstacles.
Google says it has put the vehicles through 1,000 miles of testing in California, plus another 140,000 miles with occasional human involvement. While testing, vehicle control can be overridden by a real driver. The only accident during the secret test program occurred when a car steered by a person rear-ended a test vehicle that was stopped at a red light.
GM also demonstrated the potential of autonomous driving in 2007 when a self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe SUV nicknamed Boss won a 55-mile race sponsored by the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The SUV maneuvered the streets of Victorville, Calif., using a collection of cameras, sensors, radar and global positioning satellites.
Burns says he sees self-driving cars by 2020 with many features of such a vehicle available on most cars by 2015, including adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance systems and lane-keeping assistance, which senses when a vehicle strays out of its lane and applies a small amount of force to correct steering.
"By 2015 we're going to have auto companies selling features that are akin to cruise control on steroids," he said. "We're in this five- to 10-year window when it's going to be really exciting... By 2020 we'll have self driving cars."
Burns also said he is anticipating a pushback from the political system with the introduction of autonomous vehicle technology, much like driver distraction has drawn the scrutiny of safety regulators today.
"We're going to have to have policies and laws to figure out whose liable when driving this car," he said. "As an innovator, you've got to anticipate all of this. I think the market is really going to be the thing to drive this, not the government."
Burns said Google is in regular discussions with auto companies and said the competitive nature of producing an autonomous vehicle is what's driving the new technology.
"It's not going to be one breakthrough that gets it to the point where it excites customers, it's going to be an improvement of a bunch of factors," he said. "We're not going to go from driving our cars to not driving our cars overnight, it's going to be a gradual transition. Hopefully this picture will motivate people to build on it, but it's a great opportunity."
Defending the Volt
Burns, who retired in 2009 as GM's r&d chief, also defended slow sales of the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric vehicle.
In his 11 years as head of research and development for GM, Burns campaigned to bring fuel cells and other advanced technology to the market.
"In terms of what we've learned as a society, this program has been enormously successful," Burns said of the technology used in the Volt. "It's not necessarily about the numbers. We know so much more because engineers are out their pioneering this stuff."