Known for its creative thinking when it comes to future vehicle architectures, General Motors’ advanced technology division has taken its ideas to a whole new level with the development of its Electric Networked Vehicle (EN-V). Think the Autonomy’s skateboard chassis that debuted at the 2002 Detroit Auto Show was outrageous? For its latest creation, GM has taken the architecture from a Segway and built a car on it.
Illustrating GM’s vision of urban mobility in 2030, the EN-V vehicles were shown during World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, one city where the company believes the concept could fill its potential. The company’s Director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts, Christopher Borroni-Bird, explained the vision: “There is a compelling case for a small, networked electric vehicle, especially since it has the potential to integrate with the public transport systems,” he believes. “The city government could introduce it as an extension of the bus system, so the vehicles could be parked at the bus station for people to use for the last mile of their journey. It would be much cheaper [than using a car for the whole journey], and they would be constantly charged.
“It is a small vehicle, which benefits parking, affordability, and maneuverability. An electric vehicle developed for energy conservation and environmental reasons, and a networked vehicle for congestion and safety—those are the three basic foundations of the vehicle,” explained Borroni-Bird. The exact specification—whether the production vehicle will have two, three, or four wheels, or how many passengers it will carry—has not been decided yet.
By developing the vehicle in conjunction with the personal transport experts at Segway, the EN-V has benefitted from engineering of the balancing technology, despite the GM vehicle being a slightly different prospect to the personal mobility scooter. Instead of using a leaning mechanism, the EN-V uses a sliding approach, and is an evolution of the original concept, stretched both in length and width.
The vehicle is powered by an air-cooled lithium-ion battery pack with 3.2 kW·h output and 5 kW for regenerative braking. GM says the vehicle has a range of 40 km (25 mi), top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph), and energy consumption is 70 W·h/km. Borroni-Bird believes the EN-V’s turning radius of 1.74 m (5.7 ft), as well as the fact it is one-sixth the size of the average passenger car at 1500 x 1425 x 1640 mm (59.1 x 56.1 x 64.6 in) is representative of what people will be driving in 20 years’ time.
Like many concepts, the EN-V looks, sounds, and appears to be a pipe-dream that is never likely to make production, but Borroni-Bird is already planning beyond the vehicles it has already shown. “We are thinking about a halfway house vehicle for production, and taking it to the next level,” he confirmed. “There needs to be something in-between because it would be a big jump to go to this vision straight away. We are looking for something that will not compromise the purity of the vision in the near-term. The vehicle would have to grow to be truly useful for people.” He admitted that the vehicle would need storage space, A/C, and heating—items that people demand of a vehicle to be a proper value proposition beyond an electric bike.
“We are talking to the governments about how they may be able to help in terms of grants,” he revealed. However, as the current vehicles are not subject to crash regulations as well as other legislation, there is clearly a long way to go.
One other element of the EN-V that is not subject to any regulations is autonomous driving. GM’s vision of future urban mobility includes the ability to let drivers control the vehicle remotely when driving, parking or retrieving their car—something made possible through the use of sophisticated by-wire systems. “Drive it manually, and it is a lot of fun, as it is like a Segway; fast off the line and you can also turn on its axis,” enthused Borroni-Bird. “When you bring the vehicle to a stop, press a button, and you can go in autonomous mode. When you have a wide-open parking space, or if there is a coordinate and it has a clear path, it can take you there.”
Borroni-Bird was at pains to point out GM wouldn’t mix EN-Vs on the road with traditional automobiles and would be looking at fenced-off lanes, dedicated roads, or even putting the car in a brand new city. “We see the EN-Vs as a bit like bikes—they need protection from cars, but the real challenge is how to protect them,” he said.
Given the fact that one of the main markets GM is predicting success with an EN-V-type vehicle is the emerging world, cost is a major factor. “The battery-powered vehicle with the range we are looking at isn’t a terribly expensive vehicle,” he said. “The base technology would be very affordable, and we could create luxurious offshoots from it; vehicles that drive autonomously.”
Borroni-Bird seriously believes that there will be a demand for these vehicles and that large economies of scale are possible. “If you think about the chassis, the technology platform comprising battery, motor, and wireless communication system, it could be a common platform and you could build customized coaches. I don’t think different cities would require different platforms, as they would all be looking at the same challenges, but they could customize to their heart’s content.”
Borroni-Bird also has a theory of how to keep the cost of batteries—typically the single most expensive element of an electric vehicle—low. “If you look at an urban vehicle, probably the maximum amount of time anyone is going to be in it is around an hour,” he said. “People will not be spending five hours a day in the vehicle.” As a result, a smaller battery will be needed, as it doesn’t need the required capabilities of a standard electric vehicle.
For the networking part of the vehicle, Borroni-Bird dismissed the current technology that is available: “We have OnStar in many cars in North America and China, but it is not the same network we are talking about. “To get the desired crash safety capabilities, you need faster communication systems; you need instant response. We’re talking about wireless communications. It's possible that before we get to autonomous vehicles, automobiles talking to each other wirelessly would be a big step.”
While the EN-V project was kept within GM, which worked with Chinese partner SAIC, Borroni-Bird could be open to pan-manufacturer collaboration. “I hadn’t thought about joint developments with other manufacturers, but it might make sense,” he admitted. “We have to work with other companies when it comes to electric charge, and in terms of the interaction with the infrastructure, so that infrastructure is there already.”
However he gets there, Borroni-Bird knows there is a long way to go. “The biggest barrier is on the legal side, certainly when you talk about autonomous vehicles—issues with privacy, liability, etc. Then you have certain issues with the status quo, just when you are changing something like the transportation system that has evolved over so long, which is a very simplistic solution, it is very difficult to change that and get everybody on board. It requires cross-industry government collaboration and everyone working for the common good.”