Larry Burns, GM’s former GM Vice President of Research and Development, has written a new book about autonomous vehicle technology with author Christopher Shulgan. Those interested in the subject ought to pay heed as Burns, now 67, is an expert in vehicle autonomy, having been with General Motors pretty much since the birth of the automaker’s modern effort to crack the code and bring a fully-autonomous vehicle to market.
We say “modern effort” because, in fact, GM was thinking about vehicle autonomy way back in the 1950s.
At the 1956 Motorama, General Motors introduced the world to the “Firebird II” concept – a titanium-bodied, turbine-powered car that looked more like a terrestrially-bound fighter plane than a passenger vehicle that people would actually, you know, buy. The concept car was technically GM’s first real brush with vehicle autonomy, possessing an automated guidance system that could receive signals from the road in order to drive itself in certain conditions.
Needless to say, none of that actually coalesced into a saleable product, but it’s an interesting bit of history nonetheless.
Later, in the 1990s, General Motors participated in a series of tests revolving around creating an “intelligent vehicle highway system” – or IVHS – that used magnets embedded in roadways to guide self-driving cars. Those efforts, too, were abandoned.
Finally, the most recent push for self-driving cars sprang out of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the ensuing US military actions overseas. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a competition to develop a self-driving car in order to mitigate the risk of roadside bombings resulting in a loss of life. The competition was a turning point in the evolution of the self-driving car concept, spawning an array of different private efforts to develop robotic driving systems, many of which are key players to this day.
You can read all about it – and how autonomous vehicle technology could help change society as we know it – in Burns’ new book, Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car and How It Will Reshape Our World.