DETROIT – In broad terms, today’s vehicles are not much different from the first car built by Karl Benz 120 years ago: They are powered by an internal combustion engine, fueled with petroleum and mechanically controlled.

Their technical “DNA,” to use a buzzword currently popular in the automotive industry, remains largely unchanged after more than a century of development. Despite serving mankind well during this tenure, this relatively primitive concept now is leading to troubling issues regarding energy, emissions, safety, congestion and affordability.

In his keynote address Monday morning at the 2006 Convergence Transportation Electronics conference in Detroit, conference Chairman Larry Burns is expected to challenge attendees to use their expertise, along with technology, to develop a new vehicle from a clean sheet of paper that eliminates these problems.

Burns, who is vice president-research & development and strategic planning at General Motors Corp., will say this new vehicle should be built around DNA based on electricity. Fuel cells and electric motors will replace the IC engine for propulsion, hydrogen will displace petroleum as fuel, and electronically controlled electric motors will take the place of mechanical actuators for steering, braking and suspension functions.

In keeping with the conference’s theme of “reinventing the automobile,” Burns is hoping future cars and trucks will be part of the solution, not part of the problem in a world distressed by events such as 9/11, war in the Middle East and leaky Alaska oil pipelines.

“Because of the special makeup of the Convergence audience, these are people who are biased to the electrical and electronics aspects of our industry and the technology aspects of our industry,” Burns says in an interview prior to the opening of the conference.

“I really want to try to give them a bit of a motivational speech on the urgency of the issues that we face, the promise of the technologies, and the responsibility that audience has for our industry and our world to deliver solutions,” he says.

Burns adds that he is concerned about industry critics who constantly portray the automobile in a negative light.

“They forget about the enormous benefits (vehicles) provide,” he says.

“Everywhere we go in the world we (GM) do market research, and there is a universal aspiration on the part of people to have a car. I really think people are turning to our industry to solve these problems. We shouldn’t be resisting that. I think we have to face that reality and get on with solutions,” Burns says.

As an example of what can be done, Burns will point to GM’s hydrogen-powered Sequel prototype that journalists recently test-drove. GM is promising to have a fuel-cell propulsion system designed and validated by 2010. It will have a 100-vehicle FCV test fleet next year. A saleable FCV is expected later, but Burns won’t say exactly when.

The Sequel also features electronic “by-wire” braking, steering and suspension. The biggest challenge to offering such systems in mainstream vehicles is getting the industry to adopt more powerful 42-volt electrical architectures in vehicles, Burns says.

Such systems have produced much controversy during the past two Convergence meetings in 2002 and 2004 because they are complicated, expensive, and some say, not worth the trouble.

“If you are looking at the benefits, individually component by component, no one individual benefit is enough to shift an architecture,” Burns says. “But if you look at the whole DNA of a vehicle and see what might be possible, you realize that is really where the industry has to head.”

As for creating a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure, Burns says for $12 billion, half the cost of a new Alaska pipeline, it would be possible to put hydrogen refueling stations within reach of about 70% of the U.S. population.

Burns also plans to tout the benefits of electronic vehicle-to-vehicle communications, what GM refers to as V2V. The technology uses an inexpensive telematics chip, combined with GM’s OnStar security system and stability control, to create a new level of vehicle control and safety.

With V2V, vehicles on the highway can communicate with each other every 20 milliseconds and track each other’s position within one meter.

The system, expected to be available in the next five years, could play a major role in improving safety and collision avoidance, Burns says.

dwinter@wardsauto.com