When General Motors looked back on 100 years of motoring, and recognised that just 12 percent of the world has a car, it had a radical rethink. The result is the AUTOnomy: a vehicle designed around a fuel cell propulsion system in a "skateboard chassis" which can have a variety of bodies fitted. AUTOnomy provides a glimpse into GM's vision for the 21st century: a socially responsible, infinitely adaptable and globally marketable vehicle line that has minimal design constraints.
"We started with the premise, 'What if we were inventing the automobile today rather than a century ago? What might we do differently?' This was how Rick Wagoner, General Motors CEO and President, introduced the AUTOnomy. "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. AUTOnomy is the first vehicle designed from the ground up around a fuel cell propulsion system and the first to combine fuel cells with x-by-wire technology, which allows steering, braking and other vehicle systems to be controlled electronically rather than mechanically. According to GM, the entirely new vehicle architecture is far greater than the sum of its innovative parts.
With AUTOnomy, a variety of affordable, all-wheel-drive vehicles could be built from a limited number of common chassis, emitting only water from the exhaust and using renewable energy. "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 Vice President of Research and Development and Planning. "AUTOnomy is not simply a new chapter in automotive history. It is volume two, with the first hundred years being volume one. The 20th century was the century of the internal combustion engine. The 21st century will be the century of the fuel cell.
"The AUTOnomy also provides a vision of the potential of the coming hydrogen economy.
"With a hydrogen economy, we have a major opportunity for sustainable economic development, which respects the environment and creates a path to non-petroleum and renewable energy without constraining economic growth," said Burns.
"GM is in an excellent position to lead the race to sustainable mobility."
"AUTOnomy has the potential to reduce petroleum consumption, decreasing emissions and increasing our energy independence," Burns said.
Since a fuel cell propulsion system is about twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine, a fuel cell vehicle could provide twice the fuel efficiency of a comparably sized conventional vehicle, and an optimised vehicle would be even more efficient.
The fuel-cell chassis is radically different from current thinking - it could even serve as a mobile energy source, providing heat and electricity for the home.
The skateboard design has immense flow-ons to other aspects of the vehicle. With all of its propulsion and control systems contained in the six-inch-thick chassis, the vehicle body is freed from traditional design requirements.
"There's no engine to see over," explained Wayne Cherry, GM Vice President of Design. "Drivers wouldn't have to sit in the traditional location. They could move to the centre of the vehicle or closer to the front bumper or further back.
"It will take a little getting used to, but it's maximum freedom, maximum space for people and their stuff. There wouldn't be foot pedals or a steering column. The body shape could be anything you want it to be."
Customers could have multiple bodies and swap them depending on their needs.
"We've chosen this futuristic two-seater, but next, we might do a mobility body that allows a wheelchair user to roll into the driving position, or a 10-seat transit bus. We've even talked about a seating position that puts the driver up front, like a helicopter pilot."
In developing nations, one chassis might be the common base for vehicles as diverse as a bus and a farm vehicle.
AUTOnomy would also dramatically affect the way vehicles are built, distributed and even marketed.