Chevy’s self-driving muscle car

April 20, 2015, 4:01 AM UTC

Tucked away in a nondescript commercial building in Fountain Valley, Calif., dozens of designers, engineers, and craftsmen have toiled secretively for months on a project that offers a glimpse of the way we may be driving 15 years from now. Their hangar-like workspace belongs to GFMI Metalcrafters, a company that for decades has built many of the most important concept cars to hit the auto show circuit. Laboring furiously in its password-protected workrooms, these teams have been assembling a car so far ahead of its time that some of the technologies and materials it requires don’t exist yet.

Meet the Chevrolet-FNR, perhaps Chevy’s most unusual concept car to date, and a stake-in-the-ground statement from Chevy’s parent, General Motors (GM). The FNR is a fully autonomous—that is, self-driving—electric vehicle, developed as part of PATAC, a joint venture of GM and Chinese automaker SAIC Motors. It’s a family-sedan-cum-techno-infotainment solution aimed squarely at China’s youth market, consumers who characteristically respond better to smartphones than sheet metal. Chevy unveiled the FNR (it stands for “Find New Roads,” the brand’s tagline) on Monday at the 2015 Shanghai motor show; Fortune got a sneak peek at the vehicle as it prepared for its debut.

Assembling the Chevrolet-FNR concept car at GFMI Metalcrafters’ California factory. Photograph by Cody Pickens for Fortune Magazine
Photograph by Cody Pickens for Fortune Magazine

Chevy hopes that the FNR will hook millennials, not just in China but worldwide, with the promise of a vehicle that will be part Siri, part BFF, and part Fitbit. “Everywhere in the world our time is constrained—commute time, work time, family time,” says Sharon Nishi, head of sales and marketing for Chevy’s operations in China. “Those are some of the things that inspired this car.” And in a departure from current trends in autonomous-vehicle development, Chevy envisions the FNR as a vehicle for the mass market. GM projects that by 2030—the hypothetical model year for the FNR—self-driving technologies will be prolific enough to have become less costly, and therefore feasible for a real-world family car. And its executives think autonomous vehicles have a particularly good chance of proliferating in developing countries like China, where cities and roads are crowding quickly, governments are eager to resolve congestion, and much infrastructure is yet to be built.

“Design is really important in China,” says Nishi—and appropriately enough, the FNR’s exterior projects futuristic muscle-car attitude. Motors housed in the rims of its massive, hubless wheels will power the car (once that particular innovation is fully developed). The FNR’s sculpted exterior panels are made from composites like carbon fiber to save weight, and designed with air intakes that add drama and aerodynamic flow to the overall shape. Double scissor doors open on each side like lotus blossoms. The crowning touch: Thousands of LED lights swathe the vehicle, illuminating it outside and in with a bright blue light, an ode to Shanghai’s famous evening light shows from PATAC advanced vehicle designer Cao Min and his team.

The interior, on the other hand, promises that driving itself can be an afterthought, if the user chooses. The FNR would allow occupants to sit back and enjoy the ride in motorized webbed seats that can read everything from heart rate and blood pressure to mood—and adjust temperature, speed, lighting, and even musical selections for those who want to work or sleep. Care to swap out the map projected on the oversized canopy and work on some spreadsheets? Simply swipe your hand over the gesture-controlled crystal ball in the center console to reconfigure the display. Of course, that’s assuming you’re in the car at all. The FNR could “run errands for you while you’re at work, or take itself to the dealer for service so you don’t have to,” says Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president of global product development.

Photograph by Cody Pickens for Fortune Magazine

That passivity can seem incongruous, given that the Chevy bowtie logo has always been associated with high-rev performance—think Corvette and Camaro. Some in the industry wonder more generally what will happen to a driver’s ability to enjoy a car’s dynamic capabilities in an autonomous world. According to Jeff Owens, CTO at Delphi (DLPH), a leader in sensor technology, “If we get to a car that truly drives itself in all conditions, you’d be hard-pressed to program it not to follow the legal speed limit.” (GM says that for drivers who like an edgier performance experience, the FNR will be able to tighten its suspension and execute tight turns while hitting high but legal speeds.)

There’s much work to be done before cars come anywhere close to fulfilling the FNR’s fully autonomous promise. Autonomous-vehicle research has accounted for a significant share of the more than $7 billion GM has spent annually on research and development over the past three years. And like other manufacturers and suppliers, GM has gradually loaded more vehicles with active-safety technologies that are precursors to a car that could pilot itself—night vision, blind-spot alerts, lane-change warnings, adaptive cruise control, brake assist. Next year GM aims to be the first automaker to bring vehicle-to-vehicle communication—cars “talking” to one another in an effort to avoid collisions—to market, in a 2017 Cadillac CTS. “It’s a step-by-step progression—some of the things we introduced in 2010 and 2011 are now trickling down into our production cars,” says John Capp, GM’s global director of safety strategies and vehicle programs.

Other, more luxury-oriented companies, including Audi and Mercedes-Benz, are closer to putting autonomous vehicles on the road. But GM executives say that by 2030, that may not matter. “How will the consumer interface with and experience all this technology—will it really help, or will it become a secondary burden?” asks Bryan Nesbitt, GM China vice president of design. The automakers that integrate the tech most successfully, Nesbitt says, will come out ahead.

As integration advances, self-driving cars will generate myriad problems that will have to be solved. Industry experts are now debating who will own the data autonomous vehicles will generate; how to get cities, counties, and countries to agree on infrastructure standards and liability issues; and how carmakers can own a consumer’s experience at the brand level while offering near-complete personalization to drivers. Says EY automotive analyst Jean-François Tremblay: “Just as Nike (NKE) is now a wellness company and no longer a shoemaker, carmakers are no longer just manufacturers but also mobility-service providers.”

Back at Metalcrafters last month, such macro musings seemed far away as the craftsmen raced to finish the prototype “build,” attaching the last of the thousands of hand-painted body panels and testing the more than 240 feet of LED lighting. At last, one technician delicately remote-controlled the 192-inch-long wonder into a specially built shipping container—its home until its arrival in Shanghai.