Many people have ideas about improving transportation in general, and automobiles in particular, but not as many have had the myriad opportunities to put their thoughts into action as has Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird.
Last month at the Electric Drive Transportation Association Conference in Indianapolis, we met with Borroni-Bird, Qualcomm’s vice president of strategic development, and engaged in a random and enlightening conversation with the free-thinker on all things future.
What does an executive for a firm better known for smart phone semiconductors, Wi-Fi and related technologies know about cars? He’s been with Qualcomm Halo since August 2012, but has about two decades experience with advanced projects for major automakers.
These include developing gasoline fuel cells for Chrysler that can convert that ubiquitous fuel to hydrogen onboard the car. Later, he developed fuel cells for General Motors, and its Autonomy, Hy-wire and Sequel “skateboard” vehicle concepts.
And he had also a hand in the Chevy Volt’s human-vehicle interface and its early conceptualizing.
Before leaving GM, he oversaw its Electric Networked Vehicle (EN-V) project to the point of demonstrating working networked autonomous electric cars and seeing the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco City formed.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that today’s most-advanced cars are on their way to driving
themselves, or you’ve heard the facetious phrase that infotainment-festooned vehicles are becoming like “rolling smart phones?”
The automobile industry and communications industries are increasingly finding they have common goals.
Maybe therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the auto industry’s leading visionaries jumped out of a high-level role, and yet keeps the fire burning in a career-long vision to re-imagine cars in years to come.
The EN-V offers “the first realistic solution to addressing all the problems of personal mobility in cities,” Borroni-Bird said in April 2011. “Making this become a reality is my passion.”
In 2010 he published a book, Reinventing the Automobile, with then-GM Vice President of R&D Lawrence Burns and William Mitchell and today he still working the plan it outlined.
“The car is going to change so much over the next 10 to 15 years, I think a lot more than it has over the last 10 years,” he says. “The book that I co-wrote five years ago now, it came out four years ago, basically predicted, in fact everything I’m talking about.”
What We Talked About
One watchword giving a boost to Borroni-Bird’s imagined sustainable future is “trends.”
Trends include convergence of complementary technologies, demands for greater safety and convenience, not to mention growing populations, cities becoming denser, and needs for clean energy and mobility for society, including the aging and infirm.
Of course issues like energy security also play into it, and developing far more elegant solutions is a long-term goal.
Ultimately Borroni-Bird would like to see the DNA changed for automobiles that still follow the early 20th-century purpose for which they were developed, and ideally suited.
At the same time he’s a realist, and knows vehicles must be fun and enjoyable or they’ll never be mass accepted. And he works within existing realities of present technologies, thus concedes if internal combustion engines are needed for some applications, these would have a place.
His ability to have an open mind and at the same time be gravely practical merging lessons learned through the years are part of why he was hired. Today his role is to take a “high level” perspective of integrating many variables toward synergy.
“I think I’m a visionary. I think a lot about the future and I think about an exciting future that’s better for society,” he says. “That’s what really motivates me.”
BMW’s i-Series is being developed with this “megacity” ethos in mind, and Borroni-Bird says his vision would apply to suburbia, and outlying regions as well.
His eyes light up when outlining things like carsharing, autonomous networked vehicles, a far higher percentage of all-electric vehicles, and of course these would be wirelessly charged in a world that has overcome some of the quagmires it’s now wading through.
We hear rumblings constantly by various automakers developing autonomous technology, but the reality of its actually one day coming to pass, says Borroni-Bird, is more likely to be a process of evolution.
These include simple conveniences like automatic parking technology, which is a low speed maneuver where no one is likely to be hurt. This demonstrates a car that can perform a complex action all by itself, and people are becoming comfortable with it.
Another is advanced collision avoidance technologies like lane keeping, frontal distance keeping with automatic braking, and blind-spot detection. And cars with advanced cruise control are already demonstrating semi-autonomous capabilities. Perhaps the most advanced in production, Borroni-Bird says, is the Mercedes S-Class. This car can already practically drive by itself.
Automakers however limit what cars are permitted to do at this stage, but society’s comfort level and familiarity with cars guided by radar, lidar, GPS, and other advanced sensing technologies is increasing.
Last month Google demonstrated a car with no steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal. A piece by Autoweek groaned and said “welcome to the future,” and Google’s idea of it was like “driving an elevator.”
Nissan has said by 2020 it will have a production semi-autonomous car which will be a step beyond advanced cruise control. This will essentially let the car take over on highways, with driver control resumed on secondary roads and around town.
Yes, forces are at work to make cars more convenient and safer, which also means less liability, need for emergency services, hospital visits, and insurance and lawsuit payouts.
The push-pull interplay toward automated driving vehicles is thus happening. Consumers like the idea of less risk, as do manufacturers, even if some traditional “car guys” are not so sure the future will be better or they’ll one day be wistfully looking back to the good old days.
Working With Synergies
Borroni-Bird, and those in general sympathy with his views, are moving with the trends and forces at play to strike where they can.
Before autonomous cars become a reality, a lot of hurdles will need to be crossed, says Borroni-Bird. These include technical, legal, consumer acceptance, infrastructural challenges, public policy, legal and liability concerns.
At the moment Qualcomm is developing wireless electric vehicle charging systems and interconnected vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-passenger technologies.
It’s also developing wearable wellness monitoring devices that stand to prevent accidents, such as from people whose condition could see them faint behind the wheel.
These technologies are where Qualcomm can get started toward a future short of fully autonomous electric cars projected for a world very different from today.
One day you may want to travel across town and instead of having a car parked somewhere, you – via Internet, smart phone, or some other communication means – might summon an autonomous car to come fetch you, essentially like an Uber ride.
A couple decades from now or more, this may be possible, and at your door could show up an empty car ready like a virtual taxi to take you where you want to go.
If you want to go 300 miles, perhaps a gas-powered car comes instead, or – if Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Daimler, and other have their way – it could very well be a fuel cell electric vehicle.
“A lot of these technologies sort of enable each other or stimulate each other and the overall business case for a wirelessly charged autonomous electric vehicle that is shared could be compelling,” he says, adding with a smile and irony: “It’s a very different business model than you buying an internal combustion vehicle today and having to drive it and own it and park it 23 hours a day and using it one hour a day.”
Think also how public transit could be augmented or complemented by small urban runabouts. Today leaders encourage people to take the train or bus to town and not clog up city streets with polluting cars.
People are reluctant to do that, says Borroni-Bird, but having their own private rented EV – whether autonomous or one they may drive – could fit more elegantly into urban planners’ views and people would still have personal mobility.
Today the Mayor of Indianapolis is already encouraging what could lead to this with its Blue Indy electric carsharing program, says Borroni-Bird.
It’s yet one more piece of the puzzle fitting to make a future picture.
Networked and Connected
These cars, by the way, Qualcomm is working toward interconnecting. Today it’s developing communications protocols that let cars communicate to others in real time. If, say, an accident occurs, or even a new pothole forms, or ice slick is present, all cars in the vicinity could be alerted.
It’s also developing smart phone programs that could alert both drivers in vehicles and pedestrians – which account for approximately 12 percent of traffic fatalities.
So, you could be walking and listening to music on your phone or texting, and before you traipse past a truck blocking your view of traffic a warning could tell you to think twice before stepping into an oncoming car.
Possibilities and scenarios are many and varied, but these kinds of things Borroni-Bird and Qualcomm are working on – and these too would integrate as “building blocks” toward a thoroughly connected world sometime when the powers that be let it happen.
First Test Cases
Today there is no place on earth with autonomous cars trolling about as envisioned, but places to first adopt it could be college campuses, theme parks, assisted living communities, or urban car-free zones, says Borroni-Bird.
“I could imagine assisted living campuses. I could imagine this transforming the life of an old person, and making them have a much more social life which can be so much better for your mental well being,” he says. “Today especially in bad weather you may be cramped up in your little apartment and not feel comfortable walking because of ice or what ever reason.”
Autonomous cars would also be a natural fit in car-free zones, such as in New York or Madrid. Here, low-speed autonomous cars could be tried out, thus adding to society’s comfort level with the idea of cars that drive themselves.
They’d not need to go more than 10 mph at first, and would not need to be engineered so robustly like an airbag-laden crushable cocoon, as they’d have no risk of a big heavy car colliding with them.
In time, Borroni-Bird says these benign conditions could encourage new car companies to form. While we think of perhaps a dozen global automakers today, if cars did not need to be heavily safety engineered and meet strict emission calibrations, the barrier to entry for start-ups to develop small, autonomous electric vehicles would be lower.
At the same time, Borroni-Bird says despite the best intentions, no one knows how things could turn out.
“Who knows the consequences or the implications? We can’t imagine, just like the Internet,” says Borroni-Bird. “Who could have imagined all of the implications of the Internet when it was first proposed?”
Want some things to ponder? If the idea is to reduce congestion with cars that inter-communicate, what if this backfires when people have un-manned vehicles also on the roads? Then you actually add to traffic, instead of reducing it.
Or, if an autonomous car has a function to give back control to the driver when its sensors can’t safely navigate in inclement weather, what if the person behind the wheel decided to take a chance driving home from that party, and had a few too many drinks?
He spoke of the EN-V then, but his vision is much the same today.
Another biggie is the speed limit. Today, people may willfully push it 10 mph over or more, but, muses Borroni-Bird, the car will know the speed limit. Will it have to obey? And if so, how will people like it?
And yet one more – out of others – is what would happen if the wildest dreams of a crash-free world come true? Would we one day hear of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety lobbying Congress against permitting humans to drive their own vehicles?
Just as unmanned aircraft are already grounding pilots, what if it could be shown billions of dollars and many lives could be saved by forbidding humans to drive?
Borroni-Bird says this would be a “tricky” issue depriving people of their freedoms, or effectively legislating they must buy an autonomous car that could cost more, but he does concede the possibility
“Yeah, this could happen, I’m not going to say it won’t happen,” he said, but suggested that if society does come to that ethical crossroad, perhaps cars manually driven by humans could get their own lanes, and be segregated from autonomous traffic.
Borroni-Bird’s view, if you cannot tell, is overwhelmingly positive; one of betterment, and doing what he can within confines of ever-present realities which alternately motivate him while a sense of responsibility remains.
“I’m also aware these futures could have unintended consequences but I, for example, I not only am envisioning this future but I’m responsible for putting it into practice,” he says. “So at GM for example, what I was actually leading vehicle programs that were autonomous, electric, connected, it wasn’t just the creating concepts and getting people to support it and buy into it, it was actually executing the concept.”
But ever keeping the short term plan in mind with the long-term dream, Borroni-Bird – and others like him – are working toward a vision with each step justified and signed off upon along the way.
“Most of the technology that’s being developed for automobiles is no regrets, you know, it’s being developed, even if we don’t get to autonomous vehicles just because people want vehicles that don’t crash into each other,” he said.
But ultimately, he says he does believe autonomous vehicles and many other complementary technologies will be here. It’s not a matter of if, to Borroni-Bird, but rather just a question of when?