DETROIT -- General Motors Corp. says it has seen the future, and it is
Not a flying skateboard, the likes of which Michael J. Fox swooped around on in "Back to the Future," but almost as fanciful.
GM says it has the technology to build free-standing car platforms packed with fuel cells and all the other elements of an automotive power train. They would be zero-emission vehicles with fuel economy the equivalent of more than 100 miles per gallon.
It won't happen overnight, but GM's top executives say they see a time when the "skateboard" platform, dubbed Autonomy, would be the basis for all of its consumer vehicles.
"We started with the premise, 'What if we were inventing the automobile today rather than a century ago? What might we do differently?' " GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said at the Autonomy introduction at the North American International Auto Show in January.
"Autonomy is more than just a new concept car; it's potentially the start of a revolution in how automobiles are designed, built and used," he said.
The sight of an Autonomy chassis gliding silently, with no seats or vehicle frame on top of it, is almost spooky.
It resembles a large, self-powered skateboard: a sculpted, 6-inch-thick, self-contained auto chassis with attachment points onto which any type of vehicle body -- from roadster to recreational vehicle -- could be fitted.
The propulsion system is contained within the chassis, and steering and braking are electronic, so there is no need to affix brake and accelerator pedals or a steering column to the platform. Instead, a steering yolk is plugged into the platform when a body is attached.
Even the familiar instrument panel is gone. An Autonomy vehicle displays all information for the driver on the control yolk.
Most components are software-based, so the platform can be easily upgraded.
GM figures the chassis would last 20 years, so vehicle bodies could be shifted with drivers' needs -- or even with the seasons -- and be replaced at will. Owners could switch from a roadster to a wagon to a minivan while keeping the same platform.
"If our vision of the future is correct -- and we think it is -- Autonomy could reinvent the automobile and our entire industry," said Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research, development and planning.
GM believes it could cover the entire consumer vehicle market with two or three variants of the Autonomy platform.
The Autonomy presented at the auto show uses four 25-kilowatt motors, one at each wheel. That's the equivalent of a 140-horsepower internal combustion engine, respectable power for a small to mid-size sedan. But power could be enhanced by adding fuel stacks, much like increasing the memory of a computer through expansion slots.
That expandability overcomes the problem automakers face of spending so much to develop new internal-combustion engine designs that they must use the engines for years to recoup the cost. Companies can get locked into a lineup of engines that are too expensive to update.
But with fuel cells, "If you need to double the kilowatt output, you double the number of plates in the stack," Burns said.
"It's easier to manufacture, safer and ultimately more affordable," he said. "This is going to allow us to reinvent the rules of automotive design."
GM's concept Autonomy is a sleek, low-slung road-hugger reminiscent of the latest Batmobile. GM design chief Wayne Cherry said the sweeping lines up front show there's no power train in the two-seater's body.
Drivers could position themselves wherever they felt comfortable in the car, farther forward or farther back, and not just on the left-hand side, he said. The yolk-mounted controls could be locked into a right-hand position if the driver chose to sit there.
Even without a body, the Autonomy platform has an eerie kind of beauty.
"We wanted it to be a stand-alone design statement," Cherry said. He added that this is a workable model for the future of vehicle propulsion, and not just some far-fetched concept to strut onto auto show stages. "This is extremely serious," he said.
But as with all new technology, the stumbling blocks are numerous. First, the viability of fuel cells is not a given, and debate rages over whether the technology, including retail delivery of the hydrogen needed to produce electrical power in a fuel cell, can be brought to market in an affordable fashion.
Performance issues also must be worked out.
Could GM build an Autonomy sport-utility vehicle that could tow a 2,000-pound trailer? GM and other manufacturers working on fuel cells say perhaps not today, but that fuel cells are getting smaller and more powerful by the month.
Can obstacles to delivering the fuel be overcome? An Autonomy car wouldn't be worth a nickel if drivers run out of power looking for a place to refuel.
And would a vehicle that has no engine block to absorb much of the impact of a crash be as safe or safer than today's cars in a head-on collision?
The Autonomy has specially designed front- and rear-impact zones, but extensive testing, and probably redesign, are needed before an acceptable safety level could be achieved.
Still, GM is so serious about Autonomy, Burns said, that it has 24 patent applications on it. That's in addition to 300 patent applications regarding fuel cells in general.
Fuel-cell cars are certainly coming. Ford Motor Co. says it will put a fuel-cell version of the Focus on the market in a limited test fleet in 2004, and DaimlerChrysler plans to produce fuel-cell buses for city fleets.
To develop a uniform approach to fuel-cell vehicles and development of a hydrogen infrastructure, the Bush administration in January announced the Freedom Car partnership between the government and GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler.
GM insists that the easiest way to deliver fuel in the current economy is through gasoline at service stations. In that interim scenario, fuel-cell vehicles would use on-board reformers to extract the hydrogen from gasoline.
But it would not be a zero-impact vehicle because the carbon from the gas would be expelled as carbon dioxide, a gas that contributes to global warming.
Others say the best way to deliver fuel is to produce the hydrogen in large plants and then truck or pipe it to refueling stations. A few companies are even working on home hydrogen makers that use water and natural gas, and researchers are exploring the use of hydroelectric and solar power to provide clean energy for hydrogen extraction.
Automakers say they are committed to switching from internal combustion engines to hydrogen, though executives and industry experts say it could be 30 or more years before such a transformation is possible.
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