Show-stopping rims, subwoofers that make your license plate rattle, razor-sharp decals — custom car modifications that regular people can still do themselves are getting fewer and farther between, and even updates like these take considerable effort and skill and might be beyond the reach of most car owners. In the not-so-distant past, car owners who were so inclined could make all sorts of changes to their cars. Open an engine on a current model, though, and you have to practically be a technology expert to do anything. But what if all the technology, all the blueprints and patents, were readily available to everyone? What if, instead of purchasing a pre-made car manufactured by an industry veteran, you could set up a microfactory and actually build your own car? And, what if car manufacturers, rather than spending years and years and untold sums racing to be the first to discover and perfect the latest technologies, instead shared their findings, encouraging rapid development, the likes of which we can now only imagine?
A few companies are hoping to make these fantasies reality within the auto industry with the application of open source vehicle development.
What is Open Source?
You might’ve heard the phrase “open source” in the context of computer software development, where the concept originated. But today, it’s come to mean something more: “Open source projects, products, or initiatives are those that embrace and celebrate open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community development.”
Automotive World reports that three vehicle design companies–OSVehicle, Riversimple and Local Motors—are attempting to bring the open source model to car design and manufacturing. Automotive World quotes John B. Rogers, Jr., Chief Executive and Co-Founder of Local Motors: “[Open Source for the auto industry] 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.”
How Might Open Source Principles Be Applied to the Auto Industry?
Automotive World notes that open source principles wouldn’t work well with today’s manufacturing model, because the biggest companies already communicate and collaborate amongst each other. What they don’t do is share their knowledge with larger audiences, something open source proponents say limits (even eliminates) the possibility of small, independent, or highly specialized people from participating in the development and implementation of new vehicle technologies.
With the possibility of co-creation in the realm of vehicle manufacturing, the traditional factory model could be turned on its head. Imagine if anyone could access blueprints and patents from, say, General Motors’ Super Cruise technology, which is currently being tweaked to get it market-ready for 2017. How much faster might the technology develop then?
Benefits of the Open Source Model
The pluses of open source principles go beyond product development. If information were readily available and freely shared, say proponents like OSVehicle, vehicle production could “shift from large vehicle manufacturing plants that form the basis of the current production scenario to […] a one-room factory.” OSVehicle is already using the open source model to, “empower local people to create local brands, create local jobs, serve local customers and better reuse existing businesses, skills and facilities.” OSVehicle also says, “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.”
There’s also a distinct financial advantage to the open source model. Automotive World reports that manufacturing is the riskiest part, financially, of the automotive manufacturing process. But the open source model would allow for experimentation and the perfecting of ideas before big manufacturing investments would need to be made.
OSVehicle’s spokesperson says of the auto 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.”
Are you a proponent of open source cars? What other benefits or risks might be involved?