|A look @ the GM AUTOnomy Concept Vehicle click on the car.|
DETROIT (Jan. 7, 2002) — AUTOnomy, a futuristic General Motors Corp. concept vehicle, so profoundly changes the automotive industry that GM is seeking 24 patents covering business models, technologies and manufacturing processes related to the concept.
"AUTOnomy is more than just a hot new concept car, it's the beginning of a revolution in how automobiles are designed, built and used," said Larry Burns, GM's Vice President of Research and Development and Planning. "If our vision of the future is correct — and we think it is — vehicles such as AUTOnomy will ultimately reinvent the automobile and our entire industry."
This new technology may well transform the entire customer experience — from the way the vehicle is driven, to the body (or bodies) the customer chooses to mount on the chassis. Such flexibility allows the vehicle to adapt to changing lifestyles and needs around the world, at an affordable price.
Inherent in the AUTOnomy concept — the world's first vehicle designed completely around a fuel cell propulsion system — are the seeds of a profoundly different automotive enterprise. Indeed, AUTOnomy is as much a cutting-edge business idea as it is an imaginative vehicle concept.
AUTOnomy's flexible design and technological advances offer the promise of more affordable fuel cell vehicles, and the fuel itself — hydrogen — is the most abundant element in the universe. So, how will the transition to hydrogen-fed vehicles occur?
For starters, AUTOnomy could help simplify the manufacturing process with sophisticated modular assembly and accelerated vehicle development. This would be accomplished, in part, by decoupling the body and chassis in the manufacturing process.
Millions of chassis — which GM calls "skateboards" — could be manufactured to achieve economies of scale, reducing the cost of the fuel cell system. Small satellite assembly plants could make unique bodies for both emerging and established markets. These plants could operate profitably and at niche volumes — an automotive oxymoron today.
"A flexible architecture, such as the AUTOnomy's, obviously offers many advantages to our customers," Burns said. "But it also would help shorten production time and be more responsive to global market needs."
The modularity would improve quality. Warranty costs could conceivably go down. Planning could become easier.
Take powertrains, for example. Typically, to amortize the heavy investment costs, companies can't afford to update engine designs, sometimes for as long as 20 years. Companies get locked into a certain mix of four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines. It's difficult to be flexible and yet meet regulatory and market demands. In contrast, fuel cells are, in simplest terms, a stack of plates.
"If you need to double the kilowatt output, you double the number of plates in the stack," Burns explained. "It's very easy to scale up or down."
The skateboard would also afford GM maximum flexibility. It could likely only vary in length — short, medium and long. Issues of safety, stiffness and ride-and-handling would not have to be re-engineered to accommodate different body types.
"You could envision a body docking onto this drivable skateboard and the interface is just a software interface, much like a laptop docks into a docking station," Burns said. "So you could steer by wire, brake by wire, or control your ride and handling by wire."
Furthermore, the feeling of the vehicle's steering, chassis and brakes, controlled simply through software, could make each GM brand even more distinctive, Burns said, "making a Chevy a Chevy, a Buick a Buick and a Cadillac a Cadillac."
The AUTOnomy concept also provides tremendous freedom from mechanical components and interfaces and the limitations those components place on a product's design.
"You don't have to design around exhaust, steering and braking systems with their associated mechanical linkages for braking systems," Burns said." Because you can handle all of this by wire, it allows you to lengthen or widen the chassis-'skateboard' without having to worry about lengthening all these mechanical couplings. That's where the cost savings and development speed would come into play, helping make fuel cell electric vehicles potentially affordable."
AUTOnomy, with its hydrogen-fed fuel cell, may be especially attractive in less developed nations, where the extensive gasoline infrastructure has not yet been built. Emerging markets might be able to launch directly into a hydrogen economy, much as China's telecommunications system went directly to wireless telephones, skipping traditional land line-type systems altogether. By generating hydrogen from the natural gas used to heat a home, a person's dwelling might become the equivalent of today's gas station. Conversely, vehicles could be used to provide standby or backup power to homes or businesses.
Customer subscription services could be delivered to the vehicle via satellite, such as mobile diagnostics and software upgrades, hands-free communication, digital radio, navigation services and other features that haven't even been imagined. Car loans might be extended from six years to 20 years, Burns added.
"Clearly, this is an experimental idea," he said. "This is a global vision because GM and its alliance partners have an unparalleled ability to design and build vehicles all over the world."