Is It Time for An Open-Source Car?

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.

Three of these companies—Riversimple, OScar, and Local Motors—are up and running, but far from the practical step of actually building cars, much less becoming viable businesses.

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.

Wiki Wheels

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.

Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, congratulates student designer Sangho Kim.

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?


  • Samie

    Who holds the patent or technology rights???? That is the question I have. Lets say someone comes up w/ a air battery design that could be used in vehicles, would they forgo selling the patent to share it in a public domain? Would someone try to advance the technology w/o having the intention of scooping up the patent?, Probably not! Seems to me many of these engineers who would work in a public domain setting are just trying to get noticed by the large auto manufactures. Good idea but I doubt that this can be applied to the car industry b/c entry to produce a vehicle requires lots of capital, machinery, & being able to comply w/different State rules & regulations on the warranty of a vehicle.

    Not to be mean but what is the Rally Fighter suppose to be???? Almost looks like a semester project at your local high school shop class. Also here is a thought instead of making hydrogen vehicles why not come up w/ a way to produce & store the fuel so that it is renewable & the patent is in the public domain so it can not be held or scooped up through acquiring majority of shares/purchase of a business from say a major oil producer.

  • Jerry

    Open Source is a commitment to licensing your intellectual property to a project. You are donating your innovation, but can still call it your own. The keyword is that you license your ideas free of charge. The deal is that your ideas and designs can be improved upon and any improved designs are also freely licensed to the project.

    If you contribute to open source (like the Linux operating system), you are inputting your designs. It’s not about patents. That’s what kills innovation because the patent holder safeguards their intellectual property. Only they or someone they authorize can access and improve upon their designs. That SEVERELY restricts progress. Worrying about litigation is a problem.

    Another way to think of this is if I am a really brilliant engineer and you provide me access to your project to improve upon it. “Improve-away, you say. Let’s collaborate.” Much like the Internet, improvements on the design are shared by all.

    An open source vehicle can still be sold for money without violating an open source agreement. The idea is that any forwarding innovation on the project, and improvement to the design can also be sold. So, it pays to keep collaborating and innovating. Designs get better and better …

    There is a lot of money to be made on open source. Red Hat (a Linux company) is quite profitable selling their version of the open source operating system Linux. Admittedly, they make a considerable sum of money providing technical support …

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Jerry is right. The ideas are free but the product is not. I can have an open community of engineers contribute to the making of the design of a car. And I can make and sell as many of those cars as I want with no patent violations. That also means that anyone else so inclined can make and sell as many of those cars as they want. Or even improve upon that design. The question is: How does one go about making a viable business out of such a situation? It is not impossible but it is more difficult.

  • Samie

    Thanks Jerry & Lost Prius to wife for your comments

    I guess it depends on the framework & if there is a universal understanding of how the standards would work. I worry that pressure from a contributor say BP or large auto manufacture would alter agreements & try to control any progress in a project, over a period of time. I could be wrong but I would not be surprised if that happened.

    Going back to patents & agreements, I do feel that most corporations like to control technology/content or market products through a controlled technology eg At&t & Apple w/ the I-Phone being exclusive to their network/& app store for Apple or say Chevron w/ NiMH battery controlling the rate of technology, or the Kindle w/ e-books from Amazon or say now w/ AP & their content. I guess the exception so far is Google but offering free services is a way to gain access to market consumers. So I worry that any project to share content may get interfered w/ if.. say a new discovery in battery tech. was made.

    One last thought on patents & sharing information in general that is kind of the flip side of what I just said. I worry that projects like the Two-mode system or say sharing battery producers eg. Cosby only delays real competition & innovation in the market. You could argue even Prius technology as slowed down Nissan in offering a competitive hybrid sold in all 50 states. So sharing info is great but open source or leasing technology a company has to make the technology their own to provide the best products to consumers due to not every manufacture following the same types of hybrid or EV systems as seen w/ Toyota or Ford offering superior hybrid systems compared to the contributing efforts of GM, Chrysler, & BMW.

  • Electricnick

    One only needs to look at the Unix open source community to see how such a business model works. You don’t sell the actual product foundation but use it and tweak it to deliver a finished product to customers.

    The Internet is run by Unix. Apple uses Unix and sells a rebranded version of it. It isn’t about patents, it is about a 21st century business model. Patents have often been used to slow down innovations. This could be a good model if used correctly.

    The Electricnick.com team.

  • hl

    Unlike most open-source projects, cars are heavily regulated in terms of safety and emission. So it’s probably harder to have rapid changes and public beta. Maybe that’s where the profits will be made — to take an open-source car and navigate it through the regulatory process efficiently. Or maybe this will evolve with the initial stage being a closed, “certified platform”, but open-sourced styling and interior design. Hope it all works out though.

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