Aiming For 'Autonomy'

Far more than a dream car, a new concept vehicle from GM is really a proposal to reinvent the automotive industry.

Each year, on a carefully choreographed schedule, the auto shows open in the world's major cities, revealing new possibilities that emerge largely from each manufacturer's existing parts bins. This year is no different -- with one important exception. While every manufacturer highlights each show with "dream" cars based on an existing manufacturing infrastructure, General Motors Corp. (GM) added a new ingredient to one show. At Detroit's North American International Auto Show in early January, GM exhibited a concept car that had nothing to do with existing parts bins -- or the industry's existing manufacturing infrastructure, for that matter. GM calls its futuristic vision "Autonomy," a concept so radically new that the company is seeking 24 patents covering related business models, technologies and manufacturing processes. "Autonomy is more than just a hot new concept car. It's the beginning of a revolution in how automobiles are designed, built and used," says Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research and development. GM's challenge to the industry's manufacturing status quo leverages technological potential in propulsion systems, running gear and body materials. While contemporary vehicles still take conceptual cues from the horse and buggy, Autonomy's technology opens new vistas for the horseless carriage. For example, by being fuel-cell powered, Autonomy relinquishes mandatory engine placement considerations. Fuel cells can fit anywhere. Steering and braking also depart from the mechanical/hydraulic systems that were first inspired by the motor car's predecessor. Capitalizing on emerging "drive-by-wire" technology, Autonomy's driver interface initiates electronic signals that are fed to electric actuators at the wheels -- no steering column, tie rods or hydraulic brake actuation. Electronic actuators also give drivers control of vehicle "feel" and performance, says Jamie Hsu, executive director of technology management at GM's Technical Center, Warren, Mich.

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