You are here

The New DNA of the Automobile

The New DNA of the Automobile

by: Larry Burns, Vice President, Research & Development and Strategic Planning
General Motors Corporation

Larry Burns
General Motors
Larry Burns

Despite technology advances that have steadily improved vehicle efficiency, power, emissions performance, and safety, our automobiles have the same DNA as those built 100 years ago. Almost all of today's cars and trucks are mechanically driven, powered by the internal combustion engine, and energized by petroleum. For the most part, they also are controlled mechanically and operate as stand-alone devices.

As General Motors (GM) embarks on its second hundred years, our company is focused on fashioning a new DNA that will allow us to reinvent the automobile. We will use this DNA to create electrically driven vehicles powered by electric motors, energized by electricity and hydrogen, controlled electronically, and connected to other vehicles and the infrastructure.

GM believes adoption of a new DNA is absolutely critical to the future of our industry. From what we know about the market and the universal aspiration for automobiles, by 2020 there could be more than a billion vehicles on the planet. To put this in perspective, if we were to park all the vehicles end-to-end around the earth, they would circle the globe 125 times.

Our challenge, clearly, is to make personal mobility sustainable.

One of the most important steps toward realizing this goal is to reduce the automobile's 96% dependence on oil. There is no single "silver bullet" solution to achieving energy independence. It will require a wide range of technologies, some that we are implementing now and others that we are readying for the future. In 2009, GM will once again lead the U.S. industry with 18 models achieving 30 mpg or better on the highway. We will add to the three million E85 flex-fuel vehicles that we have built in the U.S. And we will increase our hybrid offerings to nine models. In addition, we will continue our development of battery-electric and fuel cell-electric vehicles. These vehicles have the potential to provide substantial increases in efficiency, zero emissions, and petroleum-free operation. They also promise to drive the growth of diversified and, ultimately, cleaner energy sources.

In 2007, GM's Chevrolet Sequel concept was the first electrically driven fuel cell vehicle to achieve 300 miles on one tank of hydrogen. During 2008, we have put more than 100 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell vehicles into the hands of everyday drivers as part of Project Driveway, the largest-ever fuel cell market test. We also have announced our plan to bring the Chevrolet Volt to market in 2010. As an extended-range electric vehicle, the Volt's 16-kilowatt lithium-ion battery will provide up to 40 miles of all-electric driving. A small internal combustion engine will generate additional electricity using either gasoline or biofuel after the battery charge is depleted, extending the vehicle's range by several hundred miles.

Beyond substantial energy and environmental benefits, the electrification of the vehicle also is hastening the day when we have cars that don't crash and vehicles that can drive themselves.

GM is already the leader in vehicle telematics with our OnStar system. OnStar uses GPS and wireless technology to connect five million subscribers to capabilities such as turn-by-turn navigation and automatic crash notification. GM also has demonstrated a prototype vehicle-to-vehicle communications system that supports automated safety features like lane change alert, blind-spot detection, and forward collision warning with automatic braking. Last November, we teamed with Carnegie Mellon University and supplier partners to win the DARPA Urban Challenge, a competition for autonomous vehicles. A Chevrolet Tahoe called "Boss" won the six-hour, 60-mile race by finishing 20 minutes ahead of the nearest competitor. "Boss" successfully negotiated the course while obeying all traffic rules and avoiding other cars and objects, all without any human control.

Vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, Equinox Fuel Cell, Sequel, and "Boss" showcase the new DNA that GM is developing to reinvent the automobile for the 21st century. GM is working hard on virtually every technology front because we are totally committed to being part of the solution. We are convinced that we can make personal mobility sustainable, exciting for our customers, and affordable for the world.

Disclaimer: The views, opinions and statements contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Transportation or the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA). As a government agency, RITA is prohibited from endorsing or promoting any product, service, or enterprise.