Auto Electronics

Reinventing the automobile with new DNA

Over the years, automobiles have made tremendous strides in using advanced technologies. And electronics has played a critical role in this transition. Today, the cost of electronics and software in a vehicle is about 20% of the total vehicle cost, which is expected to grow to 35% to 40% of the vehicle value by 2010, analysts predict. And, as this trend continues, electronics and software will become a dominant part of automotive design in the future.

Despite all the progress that has been made in today's automobiles, they are not much different from the first car built by Karl Benz 120 years ago. In essence, their technical DNA remains the same even after more than a century of development work, said Larry Burns, vice president of General Motor's Research & Development and Strategic Planning. In his keynote talk at the recent Convergence conference in Detroit, Burns said that the industry must develop cars that offer a solution and not contribute to the problem.

While having served mankind well during this period, this relatively primitive concept has created troubling issues concerning energy, emissions, safety, congestion and affordability, asserted the keynoter. Even though the industry has significantly improved fuel consumption in the past three decades, almost all of the energy used to power automobiles continues to be derived from petroleum, stated Burns. This problem will only get more complicated as the developing world aspires to adopt automobiles on a larger scale. That means a growing number of cars and trucks will consume billions more gallons of fuel, emit more CO2 and congest more roads, added Burns.

Thus, to eliminate these problems, developers must start fresh. Carmakers must now start thinking of building future vehicles around a new DNA, stated Burns. Fuel cells and electric motors must replace the traditional internal combustion engine for propulsion, hydrogen should displace petroleum as fuel, and electronically controlled electric motors must replace mechanical actuators for steering, braking and suspension. In addition, stand-alone systems must give way to connected vehicle technologies. The new DNA will enable reinventing the automobile that is more fun to drive, offers more value, respects the environment and becomes a node on a global network that connects the flow of transportation, information and power. In short, it will result in a vehicle that is fundamentally better by every measure — design, performance, energy efficiency and safety.

To demonstrate what he was proposing, Burns showed GM's hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Sequel prototype to the attendees. As per the talk, this fuel cell propulsion system design is expected to be validated by 2010. Sequel is specifically designed around hydrogen fuel cell technology that combines the fuel cell with three electric motors and a lithium-ion battery to give jet-like acceleration characteristics and all-wheel drive with side-to-side torque control. The chassis systems for braking, steering and damping are all electronically controlled and actuated to give shorter stopping distances and more responsive steering. These technologies are housed under the floor to give a stable low center of gravity. On the outside it offers an attractive, lightweight aluminum crossover-style body.

Sequel truly is a vehicle of the future and embodies the fundamental changes that can be realized with the new automotive DNA, noted Burns. This new DNA will ensure that our industry can continue to extend the significant benefits of automobile ownership to many more people around the globe … in a way that is sustainable. Beyond the automobile itself, this new DNA offers dramatic opportunities for the industry to reinvent the automotive business model, concluded Burns.

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