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.
But fuel cells and storage containers for the hydrogen they run on are still too bulky, as are the computer controls for drive-by-wire systems. The working prototype of the Autonomy that will be unveiled later this year will be about 11 inches thick, almost twice the desired dimension. Still, engineers at GM and elsewhere are confident that work is advancing quickly enough that within 20 years the roads will be filled with radically redesigned cars like the Autonomy. Those cars will be produced by a completely altered auto industry, in which traditional engine building will wane and new technology suppliers will rise. In developing the Autonomy, GM turned not only to traditional automotive suppliers, but also to a company that specializes in electrical generation for submarines and another with expertise in hydrogen storage tanks.
GM has competition in the race to reinvent. Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, and Toyota are also developing drive-by-wire and fuel cell systems. And though they have not articulated a vision as specific as GM’s Autonomy, they, too, see radical change ahead. “By the time the current generation of young designers retire, they quite possibly could see the last of the internal combustion engine,” says Ed Golden, executive director of Ford’s North American design operations. “They will probably create vehicles that are more significant and different than anything current designers like me will do in our careers.”
What makes the Autonomy approach so intriguing is that it would allow drivers to own several car bodies for just one skateboard, then alter the layout and look of their vehicles according to the dictates of lifestyle or mood. (A reality that would also transform the marketplace: Would a GM skateboard accept only GM bodies, or also third-party hardware? GM envisions the skateboard forming the platform not just for a few car models, but for dozens of models globally, changing the economics of production.) Each body would snap on to the Autonomy base, and its interior technology-controls, power, heating, and cooling-would connect to the chassis through a docking port on the platform. A family might own a commuter sedan body and a sport or SUV body for weekends or vacations, then buy a specially configured body so that, for example, a newly disabled family member could roll a wheelchair directly into the driving position. A notion like this has implications for another great American institution, the two-car garage-or perhaps the bodies would be stored at depots for quick installation. Within a given car body there would also be flexibility: Passenger and even driver seat positions could be moved; a car could be turned into a mobile office, even a mobile bedroom. Some of this seems fanciful, but when you clear the decks above the skateboard, the possibilities are astounding.
Before unveiling the Autonomy, GM held an internal contest to see what kinds of attachable auto bodies its designers could come up with. We decided to take a similar route, asking two independent design firms to brainstorm new configurations for the car of the future, based on the Autonomy concept. We encouraged the firms not only to play with interior configurations, but to fundamentally alter the architecture of the automobile, creating vehicles that are not only innovative but functional. Prisma Design International of Tustin, California, responded with a novel SUV and adjustable-bed pickup; Aria-Group of Irvine, California, conceived a snap-on sports car and a sedan.
Designers are buzzing about the potential versatility of the Autonomy-especially when it comes to interiors. “The task of driving is different at different points in the day or in one’s life,” says Jaron Rothkop, a senior industrial designer at Lear Corp., an automotive interiors supplier. The Autonomy yields a car that can evolve to a much more profound degree than aftermarket add-ons have ever made possible.
Drive-by-wire technology, meanwhile, would enable the steering wheel to become an aircraft-type control yoke or a joystick, if that were desired by some drivers. Whatever the device, it would not need to be attached to a conventional steering column and could, potentially, be docked in several places about the car. John Phillips, director of industrial design and advanced product development at Lear, suggests it could be pulled down from the ceiling when required and hidden away (a security plus) when the car was stationary and doubling as a living or working space. When traveling alone, the driver could sit in the center of the vehicle, for increased safety in case of a collision; side- or rear-view cameras would provide a full range of vision. A British motorist who drove frequently to France on business could shift his position from right to left and back again. The absence of an engine compartment, meanwhile, could make cars safer, with new room for crash-absorbing material in front of the driver.
There is work to be done, of course, before the skateboard is ready for prime time. That work starts with the fuel cell. Fuel cells have come a long way since 1994, when Daimler-Benz unveiled a van whose fuel cell stacks and hydrogen tanks were so large they consumed the majority of the space inside. Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, and most of the other big carmakers either have experimental fuel cell vehicles on the road, or will have them there soon. But no fuel-storage system as compact as that required by the skateboard is in view; if the skateboard is 6 inches thick, the tanks will have to be mere inches high. Liquid hydrogen requires thick, insulated tanks that can maintain the fuel at 253