3/1/2002 | 9 MINUTE READ


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There probably won’t be a vehicle like this one for another 10 to 15 years. There will be plenty of resistance against it coming to be. The status quo is a tough thing to topple. Yet some people at General Motors have driven a stake in the ground—and that ground is in the future.


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The story sounds a bit Hollywood. “We started with the premise, ‘What if we were inventing the automobile today rather than a century ago? What might we do differently?’” So recalls Rick Wagoner, president and CEO of General Motors.

While it would be nice to think that the people at the top of the world’s largest automobile manufacturing company are actually asking one another about such lofty speculations, the story sounds just a bit too much like George Washington and the cherry tree—something a bit too wooden.

Regardless of that, the answer to the question is something that could (yes, I am being deliberately tentative here, not wanting to go out on any limbs) have profound effects on the state of automotive design, manufacture, retail, service, finance—you name it.

The name of the result is AUTOnomy. Observes Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of Research and Development and Planning. “This is not just an exercise. We are serious about this.”

How serious? Consider this: AUTOnomy is a “concept” car. It’s the sort of thing that gets rolled out on the stages of the world’s premier auto shows so that the buying public can get a glimpse of their potential transportation future. Generally, really good concept cars serve as models for much milder production vehicles at some point. Sometimes, the concept cars actually have mechanicals beneath their handcrafted skin. But they are fundamentally models.

AUTOnomy is more than your classic concept car, even though it had its debut at the 2002 North American Inter-national Auto Show. GM is seeking 24 patents related to the business models, technologies, and manufacturing processes for AUTOnomy.

So maybe the story is a little stagy. Maybe the AUTOnomy seems like science fiction. Maybe, just maybe, this really will be the future of transportation.


The New Art.

Sometimes people talk about cars as being like sculptures. Generally, they’re thinking about the shape of the vehicle. But there is another way of thinking about the vehicle—car or truck—with a sculptural analog: the internal combustion engine is a huge block.

“A fuel cell stack can be spread around the vehicle and can take any shape you might imagine. It doesn’t have to be bunched up like the cylinders on an internal combustion engine,” says Christopher Borroni-Bird, head of GM’s Design and Technology Fusion Group and program manager of AUTOnomy. No block to design around.

Note the name of that group: Design and Technology Fusion. These are people who are tasked with leveraging design and technology of finding beneficial strengths between the two. Adrian Chernoff, AUTOnomy Program Architect (and former Disney Imagineer), notes, “This is about the creation of something that we haven’t seen before.”

Which is only partially true. We have seen something like it before. It is a four-wheeled vehicle. It is a car or a truck.

When asked about that fundamental architecture—the four wheels, parallel sets—Burns acknowledges, “Maybe we should have reinvented the automobile around two wheels or three wheels.” He’s thinking about the two-wheeled Segway Human Transporter. The AUTOnomy has all-wheel-drive, all-wheel-steering, and Silicon Valley-sized computer power. “This could be thought about as a four-wheeled Segway in terms of its maneuverability,” Burns says.

He adds, “Perhaps we didn’t go far enough.”

But where they are pointing is someplace that many people will have a tough enough time wrapping their minds—and businesses—around. If the people at GM are right, then this could be a whole new approach.

Wayne Cherry, GM vice president of Design, makes an important observation: “There’s no engine to see over.” Each of the wheels has integrated drive motors. There’s no limiting lump of iron and/or aluminum.

What’s more, the mechanical linkages that have been part and parcel of every car built for the past 100 years—as in the steering system and accel/decel system—aren’t there, either. There’s no steering column to design around. These mechanical linkages have given way to X-by-wire technology, technology that GM’s partner on the AUTOnomy, SKF (Göteborg, Sweden), has transitioned from aircraft to automobiles.

That—the elimination of the block and the elimination of the linkages—in large part, changes the art of the automobile. More than the block is missing.


Beyond Tony Hawk.

Fundamentally, the AUTOnomy is a skateboard, which Wayne Cherry describes as having “design integrity with or without the body.” This skateboard is approximately six-inches thick. It contains the fuel cell stack (i.e., that which converts the hydrogen into electricity [with the byproducts of heat and water]) as well as the tank that holds the hydrogen (a conformable tank of some sort; Borroni-Bird notes that they will have to develop a different hydrogen storage system than is presently available in order to achieve the kind of range [~300 miles per fill-up] that they are seeking). The heat exchanger is designed into the sides of the structure. The body attachments (four of them) are in the skateboard, as is the “universal docking connection,” which is the power communication port that connects the body system to the skateboard. The docking station is where the X-by-wire connection is made. The skateboard for the concept as introduced is 175.8-in. long and 74-in. wide; it has a 122-in. wheelbase.


Back to the Future.

Although there is the future writ large with the AUTOnomy, although Burns claims, “AUTOnomy is not simply a new chapter in automotive history. It is volume two, with the first hundred years of the automobile being number one,” there is one aspect of the vehicle that harkens back to an early day of the auto industry, a day that many people would undoubtedly like to see regained. The potential would exist for the re-creation of great body builders, like the coachbuilders of days gone by.

Consider: the AUTOnomy is built such that the body can be readily replaced. The analogy that Burns and his colleagues use when talking about attaching the body onto the chassis is snapping a notebook computer into a docking station. There are mechanical (bayonet mounts is one suggestion) and electrical connections. All of the chassis produced would have the same configuration. (Burns suggests that it would be possible to cover the entire range of passenger vehicles—from small cars to trucks—with three sizes of chassis: “Today at GM we cover the range with about 11 of them.”) What goes on top can be changed as required—or desired.

The body doesn’t have to play a role in the crashworthiness of the vehicle, because that capability can be built right into the skateboard.

The initial body design that GM Design Staff created for AUTOnomy is a Jules Verne-inspired two seater that shouts “Tomorrow!” like the narrator of a space opera. Wayne Cherry notes, however, “Next we might do a mobility body that allows a wheelchair user to roll right into the driving position, or a 10-seat transit bus. We’ve even talked about a seating position that puts the driver right up front, like a helicopter pilot.”

Because of the X-by-wire technology, the steering system and the pdals can be located wherever: left side or right or even middle; perhaps where what would otherwise be considered the back seat.

There is discussion of the possibility of people leasing several bodies during the life of the chassis, a life that is said to be longer than that of the average car of today: Burns says it can be measured in decades (two of them), rather than years.

Which brings up the possibility of mass customization made significantly easier: the tough stuff (fuel cell stacks, storage, electrical connection, etc.) stays the same, which facilitates achieving economies of scale in manufacturing, while the bodies are modified to meet customer requirements. This could even mean having giant skateboard factories and small local body shops. Global finally meets local. (Burns likes to point out that 88% of the world’s population don’t have the access to personal transportation that the other 12% have come to take for granted. Presumably, not even the brand-new “segment-buster” designs that are emerging as concept vehicles right now can accommodate the manifold needs that exist for that 88%.)



The critics cry out that there isn’t the fuel cell technology right now to make this happen. True. But Borroni-Bird says that progress is being made “by leaps and bounds” in terms of gaining power density. And GM—as well as all of the world’s major automakers—is investing serious time, money and resources into developing fuel cell technology. (Borroni-Bird says that they’ll have an operating platform by the end of 2002.)

And think about the technologies through the years (typewriters, carburetors) that couldn’t be replaced, either.



One of the drivers that Burns thinks will propel the development of AUTOnomy is simplicity: “Think about the production facility for a fuel cell stack. I can start with a 25-kW stack that can power your home. I can take four of those, 100 kW, and drive something like AUTOnomy. I add a couple more and I can get to a Suburban. Then I can take a couple more and get to 250-kW stack for a bus, and four of those and do an Electromotive. So I am talking about everything from 25- to 1,000-kW stacks all in the same manufacturing facility. Today we have a separate line for four cylinders, six cylinders, eight. . . .” All you’re doing is adding cells to get to the higher kilowatts. And where is it even conceivable to make car and railroad engines under the same roof?
Burns notes, perhaps somewhat more realistically, “As we’ve tried to make the internal combustion engine cleaner and more efficient, we’ve had to add to it. It is becoming increasingly complex as compared to the engines of 20 years ago. Which suggest that there has to be a limit at some point, and for something simpler to come in under it.”

He describes a fuel cell as being like a “stack of pancakes.” Which is a whole lot simpler than an internal combustion engine.


Supplier Alert!

There is something cautionary about AUTOnomy for all automotive suppliers. Burns points out: “Right now, about half of the suppliers we work with on our fuel cell program are not from the auto industry.” That’s right now, not at some point in a Jetson’s future.

“The competencies that are required to optimized electrochemical engines are different than the ones we’ve developed on mechanical systems.”

You can be the leanest supplier in the world, but if the technology shifts . . .


Says Who?

“In futurism, the favored rule is ‘you can say what, or you can say when, but not both at once.’”—George Gilder

Maybe this is just show biz. Maybe.

But listen to Larry Burns:

“Can I tell you emphatically that this will happen and do I know when that will happen? No.” But he goes on to describe himself as “a technologist by trade and an optimist about technology.” And then he points out why he is so optimistic about the possibility of realizing technical achievements that might otherwise seem like folly: “Ten years ago I was totally deaf and today I can hear with a cochlear implant and do what I can do because somebody in Australia in 1970 had the wild idea of planting a wire in someone’s ear to see if it could stimulate the auditory nerve.”

AUTOnomy doesn’t seem so outlandish after all.