Robotic auto reaches for the stars

July 1, 2009
When French automaker Citron wanted something exciting to lure customers into its flagship showroom along the Champs-es avenue in Paris, the company contacted

When French automaker Citroën wanted something exciting to lure customers into its flagship showroom along the Champs-Élysées avenue in Paris, the company contacted Amorphic Robot Works of Brooklyn, N.Y. Artist Chico MacMurtrie found his inspiration in the curvaceous 1965 Citroën DS. His Totemobile creation transforms the 1965 auto into a 60-foot totem pole during a stunning, five-and-a-half-minute robotic metamorphosis.

Back story

“When I was asked to create a piece for Citroën, I saw the showroom and knew immediately that I was interested in making something grow,” MacMurtrie recalls. He decided to focus on the carmaker's DS model. “Part of what intrigued me, from a conceptual point of view, is I felt it was the first organic vehicle ever produced, going beyond its function as a car by integrating the first hydraulic system.”

When it debuted in 1955, the aerodynamic Citroën DS sedan was the most technically advanced car in the world, boasting self-leveling suspension, power steering, clutch, and brakes, plus built-in actuators that could lift the vehicle for changing a flat. MacMurtrie's concept was to morph the car into something completely different and somehow organic.

From transport to totem pole

MacMurtrie and his team of 42 people from California, New York, and Ohio carried out the project, turning to Parker Hannifin for linear actuators, servomotors, and gearboxes.

“We used 24 Parker actuators. Each of them has a series of sequences we programmed into them and the main driver computer summons those sequences,” he explains. “Citroën sent us a scale model of a DS, and we scanned that vehicle and worked in CAD to build all the mechanisms into the skin of what was the car. Out of that modeled scan, we made cutouts to build what's called the ‘buck,’ which is the plywood sectional division, the way they still make custom cars today. We then worked the mechanical substructure into the CAD drawing, and by the time it all came together in the studio here in Brooklyn, everything fit.”

The main lift system for the Totemobile is based on three four-stage, telescoping aluminum assemblies, each driven by an actuator with dual chain and sheave pulley extension systems. Capable of handling 10,000 ft-lb, actuators are equipped with a servomotor driving a threaded rod in the Totemobile. Nearly 50 interdependent machines are contained within the artwork. Visit for video footage and more.

Totemobile details

Weight: 4,600 kg

Maximum height: 18 m

Safety: Spectator barrier, 4.5 x 7.2 m; more than 100 double-redundant travel, position, and tilt sensors; multiple e-stops; four laser shields

Actuators and motors: 27 Parker linear actuators and servomotors

Pneumatics: 10 low pressure, inflatable accent elements

Control system: Allen-Bradley PLC

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