|AUTOnomy Concept Allows Designers to Think Outside the Box|
DETROIT (Jan. 7, 2002) — Starting now, vehicle design is officially wide open.
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All the working parts of General Motors' AUTOnomy concept vehicle are sandwiched in the skateboard-like chassis, and the application of a new technology eliminates foot pedals, the instrument panel and the steering column. Now, the driver can sit anywhere in the vehicle.
"The fusion of fuel cells and x-by-wire technology, which replaces mechanical systems with electronic ones, opens the door to tremendous styling and design opportunities," said Wayne Cherry, GM's Vice President of Design. "It's design freedom without constraints."
By themselves, fuel cells aren't a new story. But every fuel cell vehicle shown so far has attempted to stuff the fuel cell stack, hydrogen storage unit and electric motors into the existing internal combustion architecture, often at the expense of passenger space and payload capacity.
That design goes back to the earliest days of the internal combustion engine. The cylinders needed to be together in one or two compact rows to share camshafts and other components. The engine needed to be positioned so that it had access to an abundant supply of fresh, cool air, which almost always meant the front box. And the driver needed to be able to see over it.
"But a fuel cell stack can be spread around the vehicle and can take any shape you might imagine," said Christopher Borroni-Bird, head of GM's new Design and Technology Fusion Group and program manager of the AUTOnomy concept. "It doesn't have to be bunched up like the cylinders of an internal combustion engine."
Inside the vehicle, a driver doesn't have to be seated within a comfortable reach of the pedals, because there aren't any. A hand-operated steering guide replaces the traditional foot pedals, instrument panel and steering column, modeling, in some ways, how planes, motorcycles and snowmobiles operate. Everything the driver needs is incorporated into an adjustable steering guide called the X-drive.
"Instead of a steering column, the steering guide might be mounted on a swivel arm that affixes to the floor in the center of the vehicle," Cherry explained. "It kind of reminds me of how airplane engineers package those small video monitors in the armrest of the seat. They fold out in front of you, but they are stored in the armrest."
For instance, a driver could sit in a center driving position when driving alone, and move to accommodate passengers. Or a European driver could switch from left-drive to right-drive after crossing the Chunnel from France into England.
The new architecture also enables enhanced safety. For example, seat placement can improve side-impact protection and the instrument panel can be replaced with a bulkhead optimized for crash protection. The GM "skateboard" creates an unusually low center of gravity, without sacrificing ground clearance. This allows for superior handling, while resisting rollover forces, even with the tallest body attached. In the event of a crash, the stiff skateboard would absorb most of the crash forces, helping to prevent passenger compartment intrusion that can occur with today's internal combustion engines, steering columns and foot pedals.
On the exterior, designers can make any variety of bodies for this vehicle, from a one-seat commuter to a seven-seat minivan and everything in between. In India, it might be an open-sided, 10-passenger jitney.
In China, it might be a stake truck for hauling livestock. Customers also would have the ability to change bodies, as their needs change over the 20-year life expectancy of a chassis - even if their needs change on a weekly basis.
The GM AUTOnomy concept, revealed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, is a sleek and futuristic two-seat roadster, inspired by motorcycle and fighter jet design.
Cherry and his design staff have been dreaming for years of revisiting a big vision statement, in the vein of GM's renowned Firebird series of the 1950s, which was inspired by the post-war aviation boom. Firebird I, II and III had long fuselages, cockpits and wings and were powered by gas turbine engines.
"When we were first presented with the power of this idea," Cherry said, "it was so exhilarating and liberating. Imagine having no constraints, the freedom to do any shape you want. Then, for a time, our designers had the artistic equivalent of writer's block. We had always worked with some boundaries. Eventually, we got past that."
The creative process was exhausting and, at times, ambiguous, and yet exhilarating, and Cherry is happy his team went through that.
"When you get that kind of creative tension, you get a wealth of ideas," Cherry added. "Remember, this is just the first iteration. There are a number of body styles to create in the future."
While the skateboard, or chassis, might be common, the body styles would be even more unique, leading to even further brand differentiation.
Brand character can be tailored not only by the body's shape, but also by the software that determines driving characteristics, such as braking, cornering and acceleration.
AUTOnomy runs on a fuel cell adapted from GM's existing HydroGen III fuel cell system. The whole package fits within a 6-inch chassis, a dimension that will ultimately be determined by the state of hydrogen storage technology. A single docking connection, or port, on the chassis provides a quick and convenient way to hook up the body's power, control, heating and cooling systems.
"When fuel cells and drive-by-wire are combined, it enables us to build and design new kinds of vehicles," Cherry said. "Until now, these technologies have been demonstrated as if they were an end in themselves.
But we look at this technology as enabling great design. "In the end, people are passionate about their cars and trucks and the potential of AUTOnomy ought to quicken their pulse. I believe we are beginning an exciting, new chapter in automotive design."