by Jim Kerr

In the surreal atmosphere of world-class auto shows, it’s the flashy concept vehicles with their wild body shapes and glamorous colours that gather all the attention. This year at Detroit’s North American International Auto show, it was different. On January 7, 2002, General Motors revealed the future of the automobile. It is as revolutionary as when drivers switched from horse and buggy to gasoline-fuelled transportation.

AUTOnomy is its name. Its form and concept are pure simplicity. Think of a skateboard – a low slung chassis with a wide stance, and the ability to support a wide variety of bodies. Then think of a car that uses the same principles.

GM AUTOnomy
GM AUTOnomy
GM AUTOnomy
Click image to enlarge

AUTOnomy’s concept began with a simple question from Rick Wagoner, President and CEO of General Motors Corp. “What if?” Starting with the premise that they were inventing the automobile today instead of what happened a century ago, the answer surprised even him. Hydrogen for fuel, a fuel cell stack for power generation, and electric motors to turn the wheels. Control it all with a “drive by wire” system for ultimate flexibility of design, and make interchangeable bodies on a common chassis.

It is non-polluting, hydrogen is a renewable fuel, and the interchangeablilty of bodies makes the concept feasible from a cost of manufacturing viewpoint. According to Larry Burns, General Motors Vice President of Research and Development and Planning, AUTOnomy will make personal transportation more available and sustainable for the future.

The AUTOnomy platform is a long life propulsion and suspension module, with the owner able to select a wide variety of bodies for different applications. Imagine having a compact sports car for the summer, a small pickup truck for fall yard work, and a van to haul the hockey team around in the winter. All three bodies could fit on the common AUTOnomy platform. This is a vehicle that can grow with the needs and size of a family. Instead of trading in a complete vehicle, you might just trade the body module, or purchase an extra one. The possibilities and variety are unlimited.

Burns envisions three basic AUTOnomy platforms that would fulfil the needs of all light duty vehicle applications: a compact module for the small car and sports vehicle market, a mid-size module for the larger car and van market, and a utility module for trucks, SUV’s and off road vehicles. When the vehicle is not being driven, which typically occurs several hours a day, it could be plugged into the power grid and used to power homes, appliances, and equipment. Commercial and industrial applications would work equally as well.

Drive by wire technology enhances the versatility of AUTOnomy. It changes the way we interface with the vehicle and opens the opportunities for new body designs. Imagine no pedals, or even a steering wheel! Everything could be done with a joystick, just like the video games. A more traditional application could use a steering yoke like an airplane. Removing the steering column, pedals, and front mounted engine could allow dramatic increases in passenger protection.

GM AUTOnomy
AUTOnomy’s “skateboard”. Click image to enlarge

Drive by wire also enables the character of the vehicle to be changed with a simple programming download. Need a softer ride? Sharper steering? More progressive braking? It’s all available in a few seconds, without having to change any parts. Right hand drive? – No problem. The controls can be placed anywhere; even in the middle. Imagination is the only limitation.

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