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Car a new seat of power

Forward thinking: New technology in concept vehicles such as the AUTOnomy are supported by the Bush administration.

General Motors sees a bright future for hydrogen fuel cell technology

25 Jan 2002

THE boss of research, development and planning for General Motors, the world's largest car manufacturer, says hydrogen fuel cell technology could turn the humble automobile into an entirely new global transportation, communications and energy production platform within our lifetime - and it seems the US Government agrees.

While GM prepared to unveil its revolutionary new AUTOnomy fuel cell concept vehicle at the Detroit motor show, US federal energy secretary Spencer Abraham announced the Bush administration was abandoning the Bill Clinton-led $US1.5 billion fuel economy program that targeted three litres per 100km as its goal.

Instead, the US government will introduce a new project to encourage car-makers to research and develop fuel cell vehicles like AUTOnomy.

Mr Abraham said the project stemmed from President Bush's call last May to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

Co-incidence or not, the announcement well suits General Motors, which just days later revealed the world's first car built around a fuel cell.

AUTOnomy is the first vehicle designed to combine fuel cell propulsion systems with drive-by-wire functionality, which allows steering, braking and other vehicle systems to be controlled electronically instead of mechanically.

Up until now, fuel cell systems have been integrated into existing production vehicles. However, all of AUTOnomy's essential systems, including the fuel cell stack and on-board hydrogen storage system, are neatly packaged in a new type of chassis dubbed "the skateboard".

This universal chassis simplifies manufacturing and servicing, and allows for the construction of a wide variety of vehicles, body styles and unique interior packaging solutions with very short development cycles.

Beyond this, says GM vice-president research and development and planning, Larry Burns, AUTOnomy is a re-invention of the automobile that could lead to an entirely new platform for global transportation, communications and energy renewal.

"In the big picture, what you're seeing is a convergence of transportation, communication and power technology," he said.

"You could take this home and power your house - you could, at your home, reform natural gas and use that natural gas to fuel your vehicle.

"You could also use electricity and water in a process called electrolysis to produce hydrogen during off-peak energy rates. During peak times you could generate your own electricity from the hydrogen fuel itself. So this becomes a power source.

"The car sits around 90 per cent of the day and if it happened to be a power generator when it's sitting, I could plug it into the power grid and actually create revenue for myself as long, as I have hydrogen.

"Just four per cent of the cars in California have enough power in total to equal the power generation for the entire state. So with the right infrastructure this thing can be the world's power source, the world's transportation platform and, with technology like GM's Onstar telecommunication system, the world's communication platform.

"This whole notion of power and dependence is not just from your country's standpoint, but prevents the individual being tied to the utility. You know how the computer has made information essentially free could we be talking about a future in which we live with free energy and free information.

"I'm absolutely convinced what we're talking about will affect my 10-year-old's life significantly." Mr Burns said the AUTOnomy concept was not just the stuff of dreams, but the future in the making. To prove it, GM has committed to building a working model by the end of 2002 and a fully road-going production fuel cell vehicle by the end of this decade.

"Think about this as something you would buy and own for 20 years because its upgradable and every morning you want to dress it and be fashionable," Mr Burns said.

"Ours will increasingly become a fashion and entertainment industry and the margins there can be a lot more attractive than the margins in just the transport industry.

"From a sub-systems standpoint, the bodies of the future won't have to serve the structural function, because crashes will be handled by the rails and energy absorbing materials you can put up front (in the chassis). So while I'm overstating this a little bit the body can be whatever shirt you want to put on it.

"The interchangeability and functionality is a big part of this concept. If you want to be sport orientated you pick your functions to deliver sporty ride/handling, steering, braking and suspension, then drop your sport body on the chassis, dock it up and you're on your way. If the next day you need to carry yourself and your kids to some event, you drop in a van body." Mr Burns envisages three types of fuel cell chassis - compact, midsize and truck - but stresses the next decade will be one of transition for the automobile - in which what he calls mild hybrids would reign - but even then there will always be a place for the humble internal combustion engine.

"People will start to get experience with fuel cells and hydrogen in the home," he said.

"In this transitional period we'll see fuel cells play out in stationary power for your home and business, via laptops, phones and handheld devices.

"Next I think the logical transportation application that should come first is one in which vehicles are just batched from a central garage and returned to a central garage.

"Vehicles like buses, military vehicles, intercity freight deliverers and the like will form a good test bed for issues like storage and packaging. You could conceivably see learnings from hydrogen generation, distribution and filling all coming from those things in the next five to six years.

"While that's happening you could be developing these types of vehicle concepts which offer superior uses of the fuel cell versus just replacing the engine with the fuel cell. So that's how I see the big picture playing out in the next 10 years, but I think there will always be a place for the internal combustion engine.

As GM's chief R&D planner, Mr Burns said infrastructure logistics would play the biggest role in determining when and where vehicles like AUTOnomy would pick up from where the internal combustion engine left off.

"We're very optimistic we can get the cost down, but not today," he said.

"Take something like disc drives for computers. Ten years ago they were hardly available to anyone but today they're just everywhere.

"That's why we're showing it today: we can't do all this ourselves, we have to get suppliers, governments and energy companies involved to develop that creative dynamic that can get us the supply base we need.

"We've set a target that we have to have something like this viable before the end of the decade, but the market is going to depend a lot on the availability of hydrogen. We wouldn't tool this up and produce it in quantities if our customers couldn't get fuel conveniently, so that has to develop.

"We've got a lot of ideas about how to handle the infrastructure issue, but in terms of technology development initiative, 10 years is very realistic to be able to make this a viable automobile that can be produced in big numbers.

"I can't control all of the events required to make this happen, but I do think we've got a product architecture and business model that could really change the industry."

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