New General Motors Platform Addresses Transportation Challenges

General Motors is diving headlong into several high-tech futures simultaneously. Autonomous vehicles, fuel cells, logistics simplification, even natural disaster relief. What I notice here is GM putting all this on the back of a semi-old idea of theirs: The flexible fuel cell platform.

In 2002, GM had this show car, but the whole thing wasn’t about the car itself, but the de facto chassis it was riding on. They called it “the skateboard” because that’s what it resembled: A huge, lowered platform with wheels at all four corners.

Essential Foundations

The deck of the skateboard formed the unified chassis and the fuel cell workings. There were electric motors at each wheel, powered by the energy the fuel cell produced, and here’s the beautiful part: you could mount any number of different bodies on it. To a company like GM, who wants to make their products as efficiently as possible, this is still perceived as a stroke of genius.

The bottom line is this: You make the skateboard chassis that contains all the running gear. You make them by the millions, literally millions of them, and the unit costs drop like an anchor without a chain. Then you can attach whatever body you want to that running gear, and the vehicle will still “work.” You need to produce a bunch of minivans? No problem! Just lengthen the skateboard a little, and you’re all set. Want an electric Corvette? Simple, shorten the whole thing, “tune” the software for more performance, and you’ve got a new Corvette. Pickup trucks, family sedans, delivery vans, cop cars: No problem! They’re all the same underneath.

Photo: General Motors.

General Solutions

Like I said, GM has been fixated on this theoretical concept for a while, and when growing needs (green efficiency, autonomous vehicles etc.) are coupled to a slew of growing possibilities (increasing capabilities with computer processing power, miniaturization of sensor suites and such), GM has a perfect opportunity to combine all of them into one big package, and be all things to all buyers. This is, in my estimation, the Holy Grail for GM. Why, it’s even right there in their name: General Motors. “What we do, generally speaking, is get you and/or your stuff from point A to B.”

I have long felt GM has been wanting, for decades, to be to transportation what Xerox is to photostatic copying and Kleenex is to blowing your nose: The generic answer to everyone’s transportation needs. “Hand me a Kleenex, will ya?” “Xerox me some copies of this report, will ya?” “I got to get to the airport, call me up a GM, will ya?” To some degree, GM already has this with Cadillac. “Well, sir, I can assure you, this is the ‘Cadillac’ of vacuum cleaners.”

And the funny thing is, with GM’s latest swing they call SURUS, they might be able to achieve that with all their brands, not just Cadillac.

The SURUS commercial platform leverages over 50 years of research and development in fuel cell technology by GM. The scalable and adaptable technology enables land, sea, and air applications across commercial and military environments. Photo: General Motors.

Combined Approach

SURUS stands for Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure, and GM aims to use the platform to solve some of the toughest transportation challenges brought up by natural disasters, global conflicts, and otherwise complex environments. The Detroit-based company showed off the flexible fuel cell electric platform with its autonomous capabilities at the fall meeting of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) recently.

This is very smart of GM. If they can make SURUS work in a military environment, then they should be able to adapt it into a platform for everyday use. If they can make it work in the middle of a desert, or the middle of a jungle, then it should work everywhere.

SURUS pulls together GM’s newest Hydrotec fuel cell system, autonomous capability, and various truck chassis components for high-performance, zero-emission power. The combination is meant to reduce logistical problems and lessen human exposure to harm. In other words, GM wants it to run for a long time, make little to no noise, withstand getting shot at, be able to take a beating, and drive on its own, with nobody getting hurt. Benefits include easy field configuration for a variety of uses, instantaneous high torque from the EV motors, “exportable power generation” so you can power stuff back at camp, water generation (the main “pollutant” from fuel cells is pure water), and quick refueling times.

A rendering of the SURUS platform as an ambulance to show the number of possible flexible fuel cell applications. Photo: General Motors.

Endless Possibilities

And that’s not just speculation on my part. GM states flat out “SURUS was designed to form a foundation for a family of commercial vehicle solutions that leverages a single propulsion system integrated into a common chassis.” While working on the military version, GM is also working on versions that are utility trucks, mobile and emergency backup power generation units, flexible cargo delivery systems (Hello UPS! Hello Amazon!), and commercial freight delivery vehicles. GM is also evaluating military configurations for SURUS and how the platform can be applied to light- and medium-duty trucks.

If General Motors can extrapolate this platform onto our roads, who is really going to notice? Us, the gearheads of this world. Sure, if you’re a minivan buyer or agonizing over which shade of beige to get for your Impala, a common drivetrain platform won’t mean much to you. But would you accept that same drivetrain on a new Corvette? I dunno, man . . . but then again, maybe this will allow The General more flexibility? Maybe they can crank out that mundane stuff for everyone else, and still keep Vettes and other factory hot rods powered by real internal combustion engines?

Performance exclusivity for us gearheads, predictable transportation for everyone else? Works for me!

Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias toward lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.

GM SURUS Platform Specifications

  • Four-wheel steering
  • Advanced suspension
  • Gen 2 fuel cell system
  • Autonomous capability
  • Lithium-ion battery system
  • GM truck chassis components
  • Two advanced electric drive units
  • State-of-the-art propulsion power electronics
  • Hydrogen storage system with over 400 miles of range

GM SURUS Platform Gallery

Photos & Source: General Motors.

About The Author

Tony Borroz grew up in a sportscar oriented family, but sadly, it was British cars. His knuckles still show the marks of slipped Whitworth sockets, strains to reach upper rear shock bushings on Triumphs, and slight burn marks from dealing with Lucas Electric “systems.” He has written for a variety of car magazines and websites, Automoblog chief among them. Tony has worked on popular driving games as a content expert, in addition to working for aerospace companies, software giants, and as a movie stuntman. He currently lives in a secure, undisclosed location in the American southwestern desert.

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