Open source cars – the dawn of a new era?
Open source goes beyond free software, and the broad concept means a collaborative platform, where a diverse community gets together to work on a project, on a voluntary basis. While open source coders get together to develop software, automobile enthusiasts pool and collaborate through open source platforms to design vehicles, or things for vehicles. Initially adopted as an innovative method by start-ups, the success and efficacy of this model means that even global giants such as Ford are now actively exploring the open source route to develop cars and components.
One of the earliest initiatives towards open source cars is the OScar. The goal of OScar is not a high end car fitted with complex gadgets, but rather a simple and functional vehicle that aids mobility, where form follows function. The OScar website offers a platform for developers and drivers who strive to invent mobility anew. The project started in 1999, and is still a work in progress. It reached a milestone in December 2005, when it released OScar 0.2, a simple mobility vehicle, which would be a prototype for future developments. The aim is to develop a lightweight and aerodynamic two passenger long range car fueled with ethanol biodiesel. The pending challenges, before the car reaches the market, are to pass crash tests and to comply with the strict security legislation and pollution norms in the car industry.
Taby is arguably the world’s first open source build-your-own car, and the promoters claim that it takes just about an hour to assemble a bare bones drivable model from scratch! The upgraded Urban Tabby, complete with doors, body panels and a windshield even passes as street legal in the U.K.! The promoters, OSV, offers open source platforms for developing various models, where enthusiasts can share their design, and technologists and other professionals can contribute their expertise, to develop the car.
OSV accepts pre-orders for Tabby starter kit, for two seater and four-seater configurations, and with options such as battery pack, electric power train, and seats. However, the total cost to build up a road worthy electric runabout that tops out around 50 mph is about $4,000.
The most full-fledged and complete open source vehicle development to date is the StreetScooter, designed in the University of Aachen. It was a collaborative approach to design a short-range electric vehicle that is affordable as well as sustainable, for less than the norm.
The StreetScooter was envisaged in modular product architecture, with partners integrated at eye level. The project saw a marked departure from the conventional method of the OEM writing the specs and suppliers responding to it. Here, OEM and suppliers worked together to leverage the full innovation potential of the supplier.
The first transformation was in the design model. In the traditional method, the in-house design team decides which bits of a car to be designed in-house, which bit to outsource, and the specs for each and every component. They then publish their requirements, and suppliers bid on the same. The entire process is time consuming, and involves a lot of paperwork that does not contribute anything to the actual development of the car. StreetScooter opted for a different “Disruptive Network Approach.” The in-house team came up with the specs all right, but rather than publish the same and wait for quotes from suppliers, vehicle designers and engineers worked directly with the network of 80 suppliers from the very beginning. This speeded up the process considerably, and the progress from a clean sheet to the development of a functional prototype of a short-range EV took less than a year.
Deutsche Post (DHL) showed keen interest on the prototype that debuted at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, and explored the possibility of integrating even customers into the design process. Deutsche Post has specific needs for its delivery vehicles, and using vehicles from existing OEMs entailed making compromises. An open source car gave it the option of procuring custom made vehicles that suits their exact specific needs. The StreetScooter prototype, developed by including Deutsche Post in the design team, took just six months to complete. So successful was the project that Deutsche Post brought StreetScooter, and the company is now building 20,000 of the EVs for its fleet.
Tweetable Quote: “Is DHL’s tryst with StreetScooter a harbinger of a new model where customized vehicles gain ascendancy over generic mass produced automobiles?”
Local Motors is arguably the most popular company associated with open source automobiles. The company leverages the power of enthusiast communities working in their spare time, to design vehicles. The voluntary community is a mix of engineers, designers, consumers, and hobbyists, and aims to factor in all requirements at the design stage itself, rather than engineers design a vehicle, and try to hard-sell it.
When the company started out in 2007, it ran 20 different challenges, in 20 different cities. It started collaborating with the community with these 20 designs, and since the community from Phoenix city that designed a rally car won the challenge, the company set up its headquarters in Phoenix, and decided to develop the model first. The company involved the voluntary community in the design phase, and leveraged local supply chains and local knowledge, to build Rally Fighter, a street-legal, off-road racing car.
The Rally Fighter was still constructed using the conventional method, complete with steel tube frame chassis, and rolling chassis construction. The company, however, has set its sights on changing that, and to bring large-scale additive manufacturing to vehicles. A road-ready 3D printed car is next on its plans, and to this end, the company partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2013. The company ran a LITECAR challenge, and the result was Strati, a prototype 3D-printed EV, with the car’s body printed out of carbon fiber reinforced plastic. The process is radically different from the conventional process, and requires extensive testing, including crash tests, to prove that these cars would be safer than the ones manufactured using the conventional processes.
Local Motors has an open source community that is about 50,000 strong, spread over 120 different countries, and includes industrial designers working for OEM or Tier 1 suppliers. Backend analytics quantify the effort made by contributors, and royalty payments set aside for community members accordingly.
Ford, one of the biggest and oldest OEMs has been looking at using the power of the cloud for quite a while now. The company developed OpenXC, a software and hardware platform. The hardware is an OBD2 dongle that connects the car with a software platform, making it easy for users to work with the data coming from the network. The motivation for developing the same was the difficulty in extracting data out of cars that designers and other creative heads wanted.
Ford’s innovation was limited to its close-knit community of staff and suppliers, with the power of the crowd completely absent. OpenXC intended to change that, and in a short while has already yielded rich results. Zac Nelson’s haptic gear knob is the first successful component developed using the platform. Another success story associated with the platform is the work on active grill shutters, which that close or open behind a vehicle’s grill, to alter airflow into the car and changing its aerodynamic efficiency. OpenXC also infuses engineering efficiency to other projects. While earlier it took a long time to wire those things to be tested, engineers can now just use OpenXC, for easier and faster results. Developing a complete car using OpenXC is not too far-fetched.
Tweetable quote: “Will the success of Ford’s OpenXC platform revolutionize the way automobiles are made?”
The success of open source concept in car manufacturing is as of now limited to niche products that cater to specific needs, rather than generic cars designed for mass consumption. This may seem a paradox when car manufacturing is dominated by large inefficient bureaucracies, with siloed hidebound processes that clearly belong to a couple of generations ago. The reasons for sticking to the status-quo however are the virtues of playing it safe. Cars are incredibly complex machines, for it has to cope with temperature extremes of a biting winter to a humid summer, and operate for years on end with minimal maintenance, all the while complying with government safety legislation, and efficiency regulations. Innovation offers the scope for spectacular success, but is also a high risk venture. The consequence of bad design that fails on the road goes beyond product failures. People trust their vehicles with their lives daily, and costly lawsuits are the least of the worries.
Again, open source design itself faces several challenges. The biggest challenges are integrating all information coming from different sources, intellectual property concerns, and security challenges. The high stakes of the automobile industry warrants a secure and trusted ecosystem. While some information is best shared across-the-board, individual suppliers would have IP concerns, requiring some information to be controlled.
The times are however now changing. While traditional industry did not see open source as a valid option until now, the success that the early birds have enjoyed, and the tremendous possibilities it shows has led to a lot more respect for the idea. As the concept matures, and workarounds come up to resolve the pressing challenge, open source has a good chance of replicating the success it enjoyed in software, in the automobile arena as well.