Auto Tech

GM's SURUS fuel-cell truck platform could be a disaster-relief hero

Autonomous truck chassis concept could form the basis for a mobile power station, ambulance or delivery truck.

General Motors

Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico's infrastructure, including its power and water supplies, as well as its medical, transportation and food distribution networks. The natural disaster's wrath couldn't have been fully avoided, but having access to something like General Motors' new concept vehicle may have helped speed up the island's recovery efforts in all of these areas.

Meet SURUS, an autonomous hydrogen fuel-cell truck chassis concept. The large-scale platform employs GM's latest Hydrotec fuel cell system, which is good for over 400 miles of range. SURUS, which stands for "Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure," features a two-motor drive unit, four-wheel steering for maximum maneuverability, and a lithium-ion battery system. It's been designed, GM says, to "solve some of the toughest transportation challenges created by natural disasters, complex logistics environments and global conflicts." 

Not coincidentally, GM also notes that the "commercially designed platform could be adapted for military use." The automaker is certainly no stranger to investigating military applications for its fuel cell tech. The company's own Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 hydrogen-powered pickup, a concept we test drove back in April, has been undergoing Army testing since that time. Notably, fuel cells afford the capability for stealthy, silent operation, and their only byproduct is drinkable water, both of which are particularly desirable characteristics for military use.

I was among a small group that GM presented the SURUS to last week at its design dome in Warren, Michigan last week, and GM's Mark Reuss was understandably reluctant to reference Hurricane Irma directly, lest the company appear overly opportunistic. We assembled media immediately made that connection so that GM's executive vice president of global product development didn't have to. The usage cases and potential benefits for SURUS in a disaster-relief context seem vast.

It may be hard to get a sense of scale for this vehicle given these photos, but rest assured, SURUS is massive. Not tractor-trailer semi truck massive, but perhaps around the size of a 18-wheeler's trailer. 

GM showed the bare chassis as seen here, but had worked up a number of artist's renderings depicting different usage cases for SURUS. Scenarios displayed include the chassis cab configuration seen here, as well as an off-road ambulance, and perhaps most interestingly, a mobile emergency power generation station. Other potential usage scenarios the company envisions includes cargo delivery trucks and various "military-specific configurations."

A remote power generation station with solar assist is one of many potential uses for SURUS.

General Motors

Upon seeing the SURUS concept, I had a bit of déjà vu -- way back in 2002, GM presented an innovative bare chassis ironically called Autonomy. It, too, was a fuel cell "skateboard" concept meant to form the basis of various types of vehicles, everything from sports cars to minivans. 

Autonomy, which eventually gave way to another GM-branded show car, HyWire, was not only hydrogen powered like SURUS, it was innovative because it was the first major concept vehicle to feature full by-wire functionality, including steering and braking.

Those Autonomy and HyWire concepts of the early 2000s never resulted in any production vehicles, but perhaps they were just ahead of their time. General Motors has been working on a joint-venture product with Honda to develop hydrogen fuel cells that can be produced on a commercial scale, and it has already vowed to begin building the stacks at its Brownstown, MI plant starting in 2020. 

SURUS' hydrogen skateboard concept reminds the author of GM's 2002 Autonomy concept.

General Motors

The SURUS may or may not figure into those plans, but GM has been developing fuel cell tech now for 50 years, and as proclaimed last week by Reuss, "General Motors believes in an all-electric future... Our electric solution cannot be 'one size fits all.' We believe you need two different flavors of electrification - battery electric and fuel cell electric."

That's a long way from committing to building something like the SURUS, but it certainly seems like the vehicle's inherent flexibility lends itself to dozens of important usage cases. GM plans to show the concept at a fall meeting of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) beginning on October 11, a seemingly ideal place to start drumming up interest.