General Motors Corp. (Detroit) recently unveiled the first vehicle in the world designed from the ground up around a fuel cell propulsion system. The AUTOnomy concept car also includes x-by-wire technology, which allows steering, braking and other key vehicle systems to be controlled electronically rather than mechanically.

"If our vision of the future is correct—and we think it is—AUTOnomy could reinvent the automobile and our entire industry," claims Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development and planning. "It’s the beginning of a revolution in how automobiles are designed, built and used."

The fuel cell stack, on-board hydrogen storage system, electric motors and 42-volt electrical system are packaged in a skateboard-like, 6-inch thick chassis. According to Burns, the universal chassis simplifies manufacturing and enables a wide variety of vehicles to be built on a number of platforms with much shorter product development cycles.

"Such flexibility allows the vehicle to adapt to changing lifestyles and needs around the world," says Burns. The nerve center of the vehicle’s electrical system is a universal "docking port" at the center of the chassis that connects all the body systems, such as controls, power and heating, to the rolling chassis.

"Millions of chassis could be manufactured to achieve economies of scale, reducing the cost of the fuel cell system," notes Burns. "Small satellite assembly plants could make unique bodies for both emerging and established markets. These plants could operate profitably and at niche volumes—an automotive oxymoron today."

General Motors has applied for 24 patents covering technologies and manufacturing processes related to the concept car.