Could the auto industry warm to the open source car?

A handful of pioneering companies are applying open source (OS) concepts to car development - and they believe OS is the key to the future of the automotive industry. Could they be right? By David Isaiah

The term ‘open source’ is most commonly associated with software development, but several pioneering companies are pursuing the notion that open source principles can also be applied to hardware development.

Leading names in this niche area of vehicle design include OSVehicle, Riversimple and Local Motors.

“It is a natural extension of other complex systems that have been open sourced, for example, operating systems, database management systems, and the like. But it is in its infancy because companies using an open source vehicle development methodology are still deciphering the complexity of the tools and the supply chain,” John B. Rogers, Jr., Chief Executive and Co-Founder of Local Motors told Megatrends.

Founded in 2007 as a low-volume, microfactory-focused vehicle manufacturer, Local Motors has taken its business to another level by focusing on 3D printing. The Phoenix, Arizona-headquartered company now has a goal of having 3D printed cars on the road before the end of 2016. The company printed an entire car and drove it at the 2014 SEMA show in Las Vegas, and repeated the feat at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show. Local Motors’ system works in five steps – submitting ideas, voting on a design, prototype solutions, micro manufacturing, and finally marketing and sales.

OSVehicle’s TABBY EVO
Assembly of OSVehicle’s TABBY EVO takes less than one hour

“Today only few companies truly embrace open source hardware development,” said Simone Cicero, Open Source Strategist at OSVehicle. “We’re talking about OSVehicle and Wikispeed, while other companies and projects have opened the blueprint design in some ways, for example Local Motors, but with non commercial licensing, or Tesla, which has opened access to its patents pool.”

According to Local Motors, “co-creation is an essential element of vehicle innovation…Microfactories bring the internal Local Motors team, the virtual community, and the physical community together to make this concept a reality. Utilising the Local Motors website, designers, engineers, fabricators and enthusiasts can submit their ideas, receive helpful feedback, and develop their designs.”

While conventional factories are large and entail significant monetary investment, employing thousands of workers, new small, microfactories operate on a much smaller scale, and thereby much lower budgets.

As a concept, how valid is open source vehicle development in the global automotive manufacturing scenario? OS Vehicle believes that this model will be a key enabler of the transition towards a new vision for vehicle manufacturing. In today’s global automotive industry, however, there is little use for an open source approach.

This is because “large incumbents already share designs and even production lines but there is no possibility for new entrants and small players to get involved. Open source development models will lower the barriers to entry and will allow much smaller, or specialised, players to join without asking for permission,” OSVehicle’s Cicero told Megatrends.

However, by removing this barrier to knowledge, other ancillary parts of the industry, such as servicing, will be open to a wider set of participants as well, without obliging creators to deal with activities in which they are not interested, he says.
Local Motors feels open source vehicle development is critical to the future of rapid technology development within the automotive sector.

“If we are right, parts of the industry are going to rapidly reformulate their place in the value chain in order to be able to respond to the new tools that are available. If we want to see flying cars within our lifetime, we need to embrace open source,” Local Motors’ Rogers said.

Production

On the production front, Local Motors’ plan is to operate an efficient, multinational microfactory network, in order to build “game-changing products” and deliver vehicle innovations. Essentially, this company’s view of a microfactory is one that allows for the creation and production of new vehicles, based on local needs.

In short, open source vehicle production is translating into a shift from large vehicle manufacturing plants that form the basis of the current production scenario, to, as OSVehicle puts it, a one-room factory. The advantage of such a concept is that such small factories can be distributed all over the world, especially in emerging markets.

“We empower local people to create local brands, creating local jobs, serving local customers and better reuse existing businesses, skills and facilities,” states OSVehicle. There are certain distinct advantages that open source vehicle production brings to the vehicle manufacturing process.

“The main advantage today is the real possibility of triggering more experimentation in new forms of manufacturing, such as 3D printing, FabLab manufacture and assembly, new materials, intelligence on board, logistics,” Cicero said.

“Also, by opening [up] all the information you instantly open doors to a broad range of manufacturers that can carry out a ‘self assessment’ and evaluate their capabilities to produce the product. Therefore you can have a much more widely distributed production process that can help brands build more sustainable vehicles by combining local fabrication and an open bill of materials of COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) components.”

Financial advantage

It is here where open source vehicle production offers a distinct advantage. Manufacturing is the most capital-intensive stage of the entire automotive process, and as a result, it is where the greatest financial risk lies.

“Open source methods allow us to make better choices before we commit our precious capital. Therefore it is a necessary part of making manufacturing more efficient,” Cicero told Megatrends.

Future of open source vehicle production

There are, at present, very few companies that are involved in open source vehicle development or production, and to varying degrees. Nevertheless, this is a concept which is seen to have much potential for the future and some, like OSVehicle, believe the concept will soon be integrated into the automotive industry.

“We’re at the point in which this industry is no longer sustainable, it’s too inefficient, it produces huge negative externalities. Open source is key to enabling a transition towards a better industry, an industry that will innovate on cutting edge technologies instead of focusing on providing a hundred different models that are all the same at the end,” Cicero said.

Local Motors 3D printed car

He believes open source will result in an industry that leaves communities and users to co-design infinite niche products that can be easily integrated into more complex services and may constitute opportunities for local jobs in assembly, servicing and mobility service development.

In Local Motors’ view, open source vehicle development will take the same pathway as open source software, open source apparel and other industries that have opened up their source code.

“In the next couple of years, if embraced aggressively by practicing companies and organisations, open source will be second-nature to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, to our children’s future and to the products that we will hold so dear in a collaborative economy,” concluded Local Motors’ Rogers.

This article appeared in the Q3 2015 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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