Burns lays out future of driverless vehicles in latest Conversation Series

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Technology was in the driver's seat for Wednesday's edition of The Berkshire Eagle's Conversation Series, which is in partnership with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College.

Larry Burns, a longtime adviser to the Google Self-Driving Car team and former GM research and development chief, led an online discussion about a revolution surrounding driverless vehicles.

"The concept of autonomy became my passion in 2009," Burns said. "Freedom, independence, self rule and self determination are so powerful."

Burns underlined a handful of statistics in the United States, including that 80 percent of vehicles are personally owned, 85 percent of travel is by automobile and 88 percent of households own a vehicle.

"If you have your own car, you can just jump in and go," Burns said. "You don't need to solve transportation problems because the car provides accessibility."

However, Burns noted, we've seen 134 years of revolution regarding cars, parking, road regulations and some pretty harsh side effects, too.

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"1.3 million people die worldwide each year in traffic accidents and air pollution is also a problem," Burns said. "There is unequal accessibility — some are too young or to old to drive. There are people who are disabled or don't have the money [to afford a car].

"Everyone doesn't have the same accessibility and that is my concern."

Burns published the book "Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — And How It Will Reshape Our World" in hopes to inspire and prepare people for a future where cars are driverless, a development he believes is inevitable.

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"I felt this story needed to be told for professionals who read tech journals and parents of kids who may be interested in science and math careers," Burns said. "This isn't just about electric vehicles, it is a combination of technology and innovation.

"Experts convinced me that these cars would eliminate 90 percent of roadway fatalities. It can also reduce transportation oil demand, enhance accessibility and mitigate climate change."

Joining Burns in the Zoom conversation was Pittsfield native Patrick Larkin, founder and director of Massachusetts' Innovation Institute.

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Premature judgement, vested interest and job implications are all real concerns regarding the future and driverless cars, but Larkin jumped on the bandwagon after reading the book.

"I approached the book as a healthy skeptic," Larkin said. "Having read it, particularity in the narrative with all the excitement around it, along with the real challenges — I am a believer."

Larkin asked Burns a variety of questions, including just how soon we may see the driverless revolution.

"Engineers take what is possible and make it real," Burns said. "I think we are in a 3- to 5-year window for the maturity of autonomous driving and you can already see where the money is going."

The conversation, sponsored by Berkshire Bank and Berkshire Gas, can be found on the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College's Facebook page.

"People will have to use lifetime learning for this transformation," Burns said. "It will put a lot of people in an uncomfortable spot, but I think it is inevitable— so I want you to enjoy the ride."


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