The automobile has been on the verge of being reinvented practically since it was invented. Cars that would float and fly, cars that would walk, cars that would cruise like bubble-shaped VIP lounges: Surely a brand-new car was right around the corner, or at least a couple of years away. Problem was, the irreducible requirements of engine, transmission, suspension, and fuel tank, and all the mechanical linkages involved (pedal to throttle, driveshaft to wheels), dictated much about not only how a car would function, but how it would look.
Finally, however, more than a century after cars appeared, two things make possible a radical liberation from the dictates of traditional car design: drive-by-wire, and power from fuel cells. These technologies are not fully realized, but the huge opportunities they present are beginning to inform automakers' plans.
General Motors appears to be in the lead, or at least is the most vocal about its approach to the reinvention of the car. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, GM unveiled a concept vehicle called the Autonomy. The Autonomy isn't a car in the traditional sense; it's a souped-up, futuristic 15-foot-long skateboard, a four-wheeled platform containing motor, fuel, steering, brakes. A body-any kind of body-can be snapped onto this rolling chassis. At the Detroit show, GM topped the Autonomy with a two-seat coupe. Later this year, when the company rolls out a driveable version, it will fasten the Autonomy to a sedan body.
Within GM's giant skateboard, the mechanical parts that normally control the steering, brakes, shifter, and throttle have been supplanted by computer-controlled electronic circuitry. Gone are the transmission and driveshaft and their encroachments on the interior. Perhaps most important, the internal combustion engine is replaced by a compact fuel cell, sending power to individual electric motors at each wheel. The catalytic converter is removed, of course, as well as the tailpipe, because fuel cells emit only water vapor and heat.
By stuffing all the functional parts into the vehicle's structural floor, GM has handed automotive designers a blank computer screen from the skateboard on up. Suddenly they are free to conceive of cars without an engine compartment, fixed instrument panel, floor pedals, or even a standard steering wheel. They have a flat floor to work with, making it possible to create interiors that double as living and working spaces. The possibilities at first induced a kind of culture shock. "For a time, our designers had the artistic equivalent of writer's block," recalls Wayne Cherry, GM's vice president of design. "We had always worked with some boundaries."
Skeptics call the Autonomy pie in the sky because it depends on major technological breakthroughs that have yet to materialize. The chassis, to begin with: In order for it to be lightweight and not encroach on passenger space, GM engineers think it should be only 6 inches thick.