General Motors Files Patent Application for ‘Transforming’ Cars


General Motors has filed one of the strangest patent requests we’ve ever seen, one that gives vehicles the ability to change their shape. Up until now, a GM-branded transformer was something that only existed in the movies. But it would seem the automaker hopes to develop a real-world example someday.

While the concept and patent drawings mirror an idea I developed as a six-year old with a box of crayons, it does have some practical applications. GM has made it clear it sees a future rife with autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing. However, operating a theoretical fleet of self-driving vehicles comes with numerous hurdles. One of the biggest is finding a place to store them.

Having computer-controlled cars mill about endlessly is inefficient, but so is storing them in a central hub. Ideally, you would locate them in small clusters near the area they’re meant to serve. That’s easier said than done in urban environments. But if a car could somehow collapse itself to half its normal size, new parking opportunities suddenly become available. 

GM Inside News, which first discovered GM’s patent filing for “Method and Systems for Reconfiguring a Vehicle Geometry,” speculates it could be used to enhance aerodynamics. How those gains would offset the added weight a system like this would necessitate is unclear.

There are also questions about how structurally competent something like this would be. Expanding panels would need to be reinforced to adhere to modern crash standards. The more there are, the harder it becomes.

It’s all very strange, possibly even weirder than Ford’s attempt to patent a “multimodal transportation apparatus” that combined a gas-powered car with a small electric motorcycle. The idea there was to hide the bike inside the center of the car and shoot it out of the front once the car is parked. From there, the driver use the e-bike to make the final leg of the journey.

Honda already tried this by tucking the gas-powered Motocompo in the backs of small city cars decades ago. While the notion was exceptionally interesting, the mobility solution lacked the practical necessary to allow it to flourish. We doubt Ford is seriously considering implementing its take on the idea with a production vehicle. If anything, it probably just wants to protect an idea one of its engineers dreamed up.

This could be what’s happening with General Motors, too. While the transforming structure is intriguing, it’s even harder to imagine how it would work in practice than Ford’s hidden scooter. GM’s concept doodles take numerous approaches. One has a clamshell-like rooftop that extends when passengers are present but retracts when they leave, while another deforms the exterior of the vehicles sides with collapsable panels to make the car wider or more narrow.

All of the designs are fairly odd and we’re doubtful we’ll see it on any of them on anything other than a fantastical concept vehicle — if we see them at all.

[Image: General Motors]