Car styling has largely been dictated by the mechanical bits that make them up. For decades, that meant that cars had to accommodate a big, oily internal combustion engine—usually somewhere up front but not always—as well as transmission, fuel tank and fuel system, and any passengers who happened to be sitting inside. Form, to a great extent, had to follow function—the engine and mechanical bits were placed, and the rest of the car often is designed around that.
Yet, common designs of EV components mean that car design shouldn’t have to follow those old traditions dictated by old technology. EV motors are much more compact than most Internal combustion engines. Batteries are often mounted low and span the length of the wheelbase, out of the way of any driving components. Still, a lot of modern EVs still follow old-style styling traditions, with their long hoods that look like they can still accommodate an internal combustion engine. Why not think of something different to do with the space? (And no, I don’t mean just add another damn screen on the dashboard.)
GM had that idea way back in 2002, with its Hy-Wire and Autonomy concept series of the early 2000s. From a 20-year vantage point, we can see these cars were very prescient. Without an internal combustion engine, GM designers were free to radically reimagine how we used interior space in our cars.
Sure, these were hydrogen-powered vehicle concepts, and that hasn’t exactly panned out the way it could (or maybe should) have. But the design ethos isn’t dissimilar to every nearly every new EV concept these days. GM had a closed system: the hydrogen tank, drive motor, and all the mechanical bits were self-contained in a skateboard-like chassis. This skateboard chassis was to be modular, with the entire car’s steering, braking, and acceleration being entirely drive-by-wire. The car’s body is placed on top, and servos and electrical signals control the steering, brakes, throttle, and elsewhere. There’s no physical connection from steering wheel, throttle, and brakes. Without those connections, a remarkable amount of space is freed up.
Inside, you’d find a completely radical interior, featuring a free-standing dashboard with a steering yoke and attached speedometer binnacle that can slide for either left or right-hand drive.
The Hy-Wire’s transverse front motor is mounted low and out of the way, so there’s no need for a pesky firewall to protect the occupants from a greasy iron block crushing you in an accident. With that newfound lack of firewall, GM opted to make the whole nosecone of the vehicle an airy, open space, complete with a glass panel that allows the driver to view the street.
The Hy-Wire concept is nearly 20 years old now, and yet it still feels fresh. The concept is basically a big box on wheels, and yet the car looks unfussy, each line looks purposeful, and the car’s proportions are different, yet attractive. The front fascia, weirdly, looks similar to that Mercedes Benz is slapping on its EQ electric models. The open and airy interior I think still looks fresh, compared to the screen-laden-yet-austere trend that seems to dominate modern car interior design.
The concepts didn’t really pan out. GM tried Hydrogen again with its conventionally styled Chevrolet Sequel prototype, but eventually, GM’s foray into hydrogen cars was abandoned by the late 2000s. GM’s released a few pretty good EV and Hybrid cars since the Hy-Wire concept, but they’re fairly conventional in their designs.
I feel like GM could easily put the Hy-Wire concept in production today, and we’d have a fresh, and exciting EV for buyers, dramatically different from what everyone else has on offer. Heck, the GM Ultimum platform’s concept doesn’t seem that different than the Hy-Wire skateboard chassis. They’ve got umpteen models planned for that chassis, so why not throw on a Hy-Wire concept-inspired vehicle as a future production car?