In the Internet age, a company with limited funds and no track record can build a successful business with nothing more than a good idea and some powerful technology. It’s not easy, but it can be done. The same entrepreneurial spirit is coming to the auto industry. As cars become more and more like high-tech gadgets on wheels, a crop of new companies is trying to put “open source” or “crowdsourcing” concepts to use in making the next great hybrid, plug-in, or fuel cell car.
Riversimple, an English company, was founded by ex-motorsports gearhead Hugo Spowers. Its Morgan Lifecar, a lightweight fuel cell vehicle that powers four independent electric wheel motors, was shown at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show.
The stated goal of the company is not to sell fuel cell cars, but to share its many design concepts so that other companies can build their versions. If and when Riversimple builds cars, company executives believe the vehicles will be assembled at local plants and strictly leased (rather than sold). Riversimple’s latest design is, according to the company, a “lightweight network electric vehicle, constructed from carbon composites and powered by hydrogen fuel cells.” The company is trying to raise $32.5 million to build a prototype plant—to build the first 50 cars intended for lease at about $315 a month, starting in 2012.
Riversimple is inviting entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers to develop other vehicles based on its designs, which have been licensed to 40 Fires, a UK-based non-profit open source foundation. 40 Fires already used the design to create the Hyrban, another small hydrogen fuel cell car. The organization will try to build an active community of car developers using a wikipedia-style website.
The OScar Car Project, which started way back in 1999, is also planning to build a wiki. According to the organization’s “manifesto,” the goal is to build a car “without an engineering center, without a boss, without money, and without borders…but with the help of the collective creativity of the Internet community.”
Unlike The OScar Project or 40 Fires, Mass.-based Local Motors is a for-profit company. It takes the “crowdsourcing” idea a step further by asking automotive designers to upload images of their creations. Web visitors then vote on their favorite design, which moves to the next phase of development. The Local Motors community chose the first vehicle for production— the Rally Fighter, a decidedly un-hybrid-looking high-riding quasi-military two-door car that promises a clean diesel powertrain capable of 30 mpg. The car was designed by Sangho Kim, a 29-year-old student with about one year of experience in car design. “This is the first ever car designed through a community,” said Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors. “You can take part in the building process of the car.” Local Motors began accepting $99 deposits on the Rally Fighter on July 15.
It remains to be seen if any of these open source cars see the light of day. But their existence—and the ideas that power them—shows that there’s never been a better time for enterprising souls (and companies) with a passion for cars and sustainability. What’s your big idea?