By Noella Boudart
Larry Burns, director of the Earth Institute’s Roundtable on Sustainable Mobility, was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) on Oct. 16, 2011. Election to the NAE is one of the highest professional honors accorded to engineers. New members are chosen based on leadership in technical, business and academic arenas, and are selected by current NAE members. Burns was specifically elected to the NAE based on leadership and technical contributions to automotive technologies. A self-proclaimed “engineer through and through,” Burns teaches engineering practice at the University of Michigan and visits New York City regularly to lead the Roundtable. Burns also holds the positions of senior advisor to the chairman, Hess Corporation; vice chairman, MRIGlobal (co-manager of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory); consultant, Google, Inc.; and is a member of the CleanTeach Advisory Council of VantagePoint Venture Partners and the Advisory Council of GreenTech Capital Advisors.
Humbled by the election, Burns reflects, “To be recognized by my peers is a true honor–it is like the Baseball Hall of Fame for an engineer.” Burns’ career spans 40 years working in numerous leadership and management roles at General Motors, including serving for more than a decade as vice president of research and development and strategic planning. Both the Chevy Volt and the EN-V (Electric Networked Vehicle) were developed under his tenure. Before retiring from General Motors, Burns met Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs. Their encounter would lead to future conversations about the potential of innovative transportation and what is now the Roundtable on Sustainable Mobility.
After meeting Sachs, Burns visited Columbia and was impressed with the student attendance and the “penetrating, constructive, meaningful questions” at a guest lecture he gave. Seeing Columbia as an ideal place to introduce and advance new ideas, Burns agreed to participate when Sachs suggested creating the roundtable. Burns found an ideal collaborator in Columbia School of Engineering alum Bonnie Scarborough, who had recently worked on a roundtable with the National Research Council. With Sachs’ support, the Roundtable on Sustainable Mobility was founded in February 2010, and the first meeting was held that April. Many of the ideas introduced at that first meeting incorporated material from the book Burns co-authored, Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century. Ideas include the convergence of driverless vehicles, the “Mobility Internet” and purposefully designed cars for urban travel.
Three more roundtable meetings followed in 2010, focusing on a variety of sustainable mobility issues related to safety, energy, emissions and congestion, and the need for global demonstration sites for implementing solutions. At each meeting, companies were invited to discuss ideas and generate actionable development and implementation strategies. On March 31, 2011, the Roundtable hosted a site visit to Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida. Over a dozen companies attended, including Cisco Systems, General Motors, Eaton, Ericsson, Florida Power & Light, IBM and Tata Motors. Described as the “world’s most environmentally friendly, sustainable city,” the site of the planned eco-city of Babcock Ranch was an ideal place to discuss implementing solutions; development plans for Babcock Ranch already included sustainable measures for every aspect of the city, including running entirely on renewable energy sources. “Smart Grid” and “Smart Home” technologies will help monitor and manage building energy use so as to achieve optimal energy efficiency. “It will be a living learning laboratory,” Burns says.
The Earth Institute hopes to partner with Babcock Ranch via the Roundtable on Sustainable Mobility. Burns sees Columbia University as an excellent research and development partner for the project. Students could participate in environmental analyses, business innovation and technology development, while gaining exposure to a community that embraces a holistic system of innovative infrastructure. The roundtable is currently securing funding and establishing a business plan to make this partnership a reality.
Consumers will start to embrace innovative products and infrastructures “when the value to the consumer is greater than the price,” Burns says. With the backing of the Earth Institute and the roundtable leading the way, Babcock Ranch has the opportunity to be that proof point for sustainable mobility. One of the roles of any National Academy of Engineering member is to serve as a technical voice for the nation. Through his continued teaching and commitment to taking the Roundtable on Sustainable Mobility to its next phase, Burns has already demonstrated action in his newly appointed role. As Burns puts it, “I’m dedicated to accelerating sustainable solutions within our grasp right now.”
Noella Boudart is a freelance writer and graduate student in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program.