- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

We very well could be witnessing the reinvention of the automobile. If General Motors actually produces its ingenious concept vehicle, the AUTOnomy, the automaker will begin reinventing the automobile as we know it.

In developing the AUTOnomy introduced at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit GM asked the question: How can we reinvent the automobile? Its engineers and designers came up with something that looks like a skateboard.

The concept vehicle team used two major technologies that will dominate the next decade: hydrogen fuel cell and by-wire technologies.

GM is pumping 90 percent of its huge R&D budget into hydrogen fuel cell propulsion development. By-wire technologies, developed by French-based SKF for such things as braking and steering, is already used in aircraft.

The fuel cell stack and the hydrogen storage tanks, lying flat on their sides, and the electronics for by-wire functions are packaged into the 6-inch-tall chassis.

Any auto body can then be attached and essentially "plugged in" to the chassis.

In the case of the auto show concept, GM used a sporty body reminiscent of the aircraft-inspired Firebird concepts of GM's 1950s Autorama spectacles.

Here's why the AUTOnomy has the potential for reinventing the automobile:

•The skateboard concept allows designers vast freedom of design. They need no longer work around an engine compartment, since it has no internal combustion engine. Nor is there an exhaust system.

Even a grille would be unnecessary. Designers could create various exteriors and interiors, cost-effectively using the same chassis and produce new models more frequently.

"Designers would have carte blanche to create new exterior shapes," said Chris Birroni-Bird, who is in charge of design and technology fusion at GM.

• Consumers would have the opportunity to select from a wide array of bodies, change bodies throughout the lifecycle of the chassis (estimated at 20 years) or to have multiple bodies, like people have various outfits in their wardrobe.

I've often thought consumers should have a wardrobe of vehicle types as they do a closet of clothes. If I plan to travel with my kids, I could have a minivan. If the kids are not around, I could tool around in a roadster.

• Consumers wouldn't have to trade in the entire vehicle. In addition to changing the body, the AUTOnomy allows the chassis to be updated as well, merely by plugging in upgraded components much like those on today's computers.

• The skateboard concept reinvents vehicle interiors. By-wire technologies allow the elimination of the pedals, the steering column and the instrument panel. Seating could be far more flexible.

The driver traveling alone, for instance, could be positioned anywhere, including in the center of the car, for increased safety.

• Because the chassis operates on fuel cells and hydrogen, the AUTOnomy provides freedom from petroleum usage and from creating pollution since the fuel cells produce only water and heat as byproducts.

In fact, instead of consuming fuel, the AUTOnomy could generate fuel for a household, for instance, while it is not being used as transportation.

In contrast to hybrid and electric cars currently on the market, the AUTOnomy would not require the consumer to give up anything in the way of comfort, safety and performance just to be environmentally sensitive.

Instead, it offers huge advantages in terms of the ability to produce electricity from the vehicle, and more flexibility in design, without polluting the atmosphere.

Harry Burns, GM vice president in charge of research and development, sees the AUTOnomy concept appealing not only to mature markets but also in emerging markets where energy infrastructures don't exist.

"Throughout automotive history, the industry has provided automobiles for the masses and the freedom that comes with the automobile. However, only about 12 percent of the world's population actually owns cars.

"This is the first step on the journey toward the reinvention of the automobile to achieve sustainable mobility," Mr. Burns said.

GM, however, has been notorious for introducing innovative concepts that never see the light of day. But I hope this one does.

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