In applying the school of thought that to predict the future correctly, you must invent it, the world's largest car-maker is attempting to shape motoring for the next 100 years with real-world ideas wrapped in an outlandish body.
Combining a simple component-based production system with the latest electronic control system and power from fuel cells, GM predicts that traditional vehicle replacement cycles could be dropped in favour of leasing vehicles for up to 20 years.
In revealing the car for the first time at the North American International Motor Show, Dr Larry Burns, GM vice- president of research, development and planning said: 'If our vision of the future is correct - and we think it is - AUTOnomy could reinvent the automobile and our entire industry.
'This is not simply a new chapter in automotive history. It is volume two, with the first 100 years of the automobile being volume one.'
AUTOnomy scraps the basic design of traditional cars in favour of all control systems being governed through 'by-wire' technology (i.e. with no mechanical link), governing acceleration, braking, steering and other systems electronically rather than mechanically.
The result is a vehicle whose control systems, fuel cell motor, hydrogen fuel and electric motors powering each wheel, are contained within a six-inch deep 'skateboard' chassis.
This leaves the upper body free from traditional design constraints. Different bodies can be clipped on and off depending on the particular needs of the driver. A 'docking port' connects the upper and lower bodies, through which electronic signals for everything from brakes to steering, heating and lighting would be controlled.
Wayne Cherry, GM vice- president of design, said: 'There is no engine to see over. People could literally sit wherever they were comfortable. Drivers would not have to sit in the traditional location and could move around the vehicle.'
Ultimately, customers could lease individual bodies and swap them throughout the week, with choice ranging from an MPV to a pick-up truck or two-seater sports car.
And GM's vision certainly sees buyers changing body styles in the course of a 20-year ownership plan of the 'skateboard'.
Because computers and software control the drive-by-wire systems, upgrades could be downloaded to improve performance or alter particular handling characteristics to suit brand characteristics.
Customer subscription services could be delivered to the vehicle by satellite, such as mobile diagnostics and software upgrades, hands-free communication, digital radio and navigation. From a safety perspective, removing links between pedals and the steering wheel and putting the engine under the driver reduces in-vehicle intrusions in an accident and effectively allowing the driver to sit anywhere in the vehicle. A sole occupant driver, for example, could sit in the middle of the car, maximising the crumple zone protection all around him.
While this revolutionises the options facing company car drivers, for example being able to switch the steering from right to left when travelling abroad, the worldwide potential is huge, claims Cherry.
He said: 'In developing nations, one chassis might be the common base for vehicles as diverse as luxury limousines or farm vehicles. It could be a farm bus or an environmentally-friendly tractor. The unit is intended to last for years, much longer than a conventional vehicle.'
Currently, 12% of the world's population has access to cars, but GM predicts the new platform could extend this availability to 88% of the rest of the world. In manufacturing terms, the AUTOnomy also promises a revolution, as the skateboard base simplifies manufacturing and service, allowing a wide range of vehicles to be built on a small number of platforms, with much shorter product development cycles.
Savings in part would be achieved by decoupling the body and base during the manufacturing process. Millions of chassis would be built to achieve economies of scale, while small satellite assembly plants would work on the bodies.
At the heart of the AUTOnomy is its fuel cell power unit, expected to become the basis for future transport in the next few decades. AUTOnomy runs on a fuel cell adapted from GM's existing HydroGen III fuel cell system. The whole package fits within a six-inch deep chassis.
Burns said: 'With a hydrogen economy, we have an opportunity for sustainable economic development which respects the environment and creates the path to non-petroleum and renewable energy sources without constraining economic growth.
'The 20th century was the century of the internal combustion engine. The 21st century will be the century of the fuel cell.'
A fuel cell system is about twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine, with AUTOnomy expected to deliver fuel economy more than equivalent to achieving 100mpg-plus in a petrol driven car. Because the vehicle is powered by a fuel cell, it can take any shape necessary to fill the space in the skateboard, rather than the limited options available with an internal combustion engine.
Burns said: 'If you need to double the kilowatt output on the car, you simply double the number of plates in the stack.
'Some people think that the auto industry is mature, with evolutionary innovation and slow growth. But the AUTOnomy reinforces the incredible growth potential of the automobile industry worldwide. This may prove as important as the original invention of the automobile.'
General Motors has applied for 24 patents covering the business models, technologies and manufacturing processes related to the concept.
Burns said: 'Clearly, this is an experimental idea. This is a global vision, because GM and its alliance partners have an unparalleled ability to design and build vehicles all over the world.'
Work towards developing fuel cells is in part being driven by the United States National Energy Plan, which includes a public-private partnership focusing on the development of fuel cell cars. America's transport sector is 95% dependent on petroleum, but it has to import 10 million barrels of oil a day to meet its needs.
A US Government energy department spokesman said: 'This public private partnership with the nation's car manufacturers is part of our effort to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
'The Government will fund research into advanced, efficient fuel cell technology, following President Bush's call to reduce American reliance on foreign oil.'
However, fuel cell development is an incredibly slow process, as GM first developed them for testing in 1964. Burns added: 'Long-term, this is the best solution for customers, governments, industry and environmentalists. Policy makers in the US and around the world need to give serious consideration to ideas such as AUTOnomy.
'It is a catalyst for bringing about the hydrogen economy.'
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