5 Years to the Automobility Tipping Point?


Sep. 1 2020, Updated 12:02 p.m. ET

The tipping point from automobiles to automobility could happen within five years, predicts Lawrence D. Burns, Ph.D. Burns is a consultant for Waymo and board member of truck platooning provider Peloton Technology. In short, when the customer value is greater than the market price, which is greater than the supplier cost, we’ll see a tipping point toward autonomous transportation.

By Burns’s calculations when he was Director of the Program for Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University, that tipping point could ultimately result in up to $4 trillion per year in transportation savings per year. (Direct costs plus time costs for people being their own drivers, from $1.50 per mile to $0.20/mile).

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What is automobility?

Burns is also the co-author of a couple of books on the topic. He defines automobility as having vehicles that:

  • use fewer parts and less material than traditional vehicles
  • are tailored to a given application
  • are optimized for long-life and low-cost per mile operation (e.g. electric, driverless)
  • provide compelling experiences

And, even with the reduction in overall costs, there’s still potential for significant profits for winners in this new age of mobility. Burns projects that a company with 10% market share could achieve profits of $30 billion. Note that this is similar to a Viodi paper on the topic, suggesting similar margins.

The big picture for engineers

Moreover, Burns is the former corporate vice president of Research & Development and Planning for GM (GM). Speaking at the Integrated Electrical Solutions Forum (see this PDF), he provided the big picture for the engineers designing the nuts and bolts of the autonomous vehicles of the future. Of course, the shiny chrome and cool fins of yesteryear are quickly giving way to software. Don Kurelich, vice president of Strategic Products Organization at Mentor, pointed out in his opening comments that software now accounts for approximately 80% of a vehicle’s differentiation.

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This software-defined future points to what Burns called a shift from the ultimate driving experience to the ultimate riding experience. As he indicated in his presentation, MaaS promises to eliminate the negative parts of driving, such as dealing with insurance, pumping gas, or finding parking. Burns suggested that the MaaS providers should aim for an experience where the passenger feels better after riding in one of these future mobility machines.

Autonomous vehicle headwinds

As a car industry veteran, Burns is realistic about the headwinds that could hold the transition back. These hurdles include the vested interests that want to keep the status quo, the implications for job losses as well as the potential for industry players to get out beyond their metaphorical headlights. To this last point, Burns argues that the safety leader will be the market leader. That is, the MaaS safety leader will be able to provide better ride experiences because it will have better virtual drivers and be able to serve more use-cases.

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The general media often overlooks that automobility will find success in specific use-cases and evolve to serve the general use-case. Whether serving a retirement community or providing automated goods transport, there are already dozens of start-ups focusing on designs for specific use-cases. In a sense, the start-ups have an advantage, as they’re starting with a clean slate compared to incumbents.


The vehicle subsystem as compared to the various human subsystems.

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These new mobility machines will use fewer hardware components but require an ever-increasing amount of software. As Siemens Digital Industries Software‘s Dr. Nick Smith pointed out in his keynote, the complexity of creating these new machines is not solved by adding more engineers. It requires a functional system engineering approach.

Smith compared the modern vehicle to the human body and how the various mechanical, electronic, electrical, software, and network subsystems need to be part of a well-defined system architecture that has a thorough process for verifying and validating requirements. And even that is only part of the picture. The vehicle is really a subsystem of an overall smart transportation system.

The automobility of the future

Burns is excited about this new mobility future from an engineering viewpoint. He astutely points out that the seeds of automobility were planted in a dark time for the auto industry. We’ve seen the likes of DARPA with its robocar challenge, Tesla (TSLA) and its electric Roadster, and Uber (UBER) and Lyft (LYFT) with their early transportation-as-a-service model. These auto industry outsiders are proof-points to his argument to beware of the unforeseen competitor. And, as Burns recommends, “It is important to do onto yourself before others do unto you.”

This post was syndicated to Market Realist from Viodi.com.


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