THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORTATION
FROM NANO TO SUPERSONIC, HOW WE'RE GOING TO GET AROUND
Assembly Required: Local Crowdsourcing Vehicles
APRIL 23RD, 2012 BY MORGEN E. PECK
For all the love and care that Americans invest in their cars—naming them, pampering them, showing them off to friends—we have very little to do with their creation. For the most part, our love objects are factory built. A company called Local Motors is trying to change all that with an open source platform that invites an online community to design, engineer, and ultimately build every car they produce. Through competition, each design gets tailored to the specific needs of a region. Until now, they have focused on American niche markets. But, as with any company that wants to change the world these days, Local Motors is acting locally
while thinking globally. Their most recent challenge inspired car designs specifically suited to the environmental and driving conditions of five cities around the world, and this month, they will begin prototyping one of those concepts, the São Paulo “Urban Pod.” The head of the company, John Rogers, has already shown that he can bring real cars onto the street with this approach. In 2010, Local Motors began selling the Rally Fighter, a desert racer that you can now build in one of two “microfactories” in the U.S. (in fact you can watch as the Shapiro family build their own here). But its primary role has been as a host to creativity. The company A Local Motors "micro factory." Courtesy Local Motors welcomes everyone to join the process. Whether you bring engineering chops or just good taste, you can log into the Local Motors website and either vote on design proposals, or submit your own. And then pretty soon, there’s a new car on the road. Our car. Local Motors claims they can go from concept to car about five times faster than the Detroit companies, and they give all the credit to their followers. “It’s faster because as opposed to having six or seven engineers working on a project for four years you have ten thousand experts that aren’t showing up to work for a paycheck. This is a passion for them,” says Justin Fishkin, the chief strategy officer of Local Motors. “Our biggest asset as a company is our global community, and that’s what we feel like we invest in.” And that’s precisely why the Rally Fighter was a good first choice for the company. It’s a car that looks like it should smoke cigarettes. Anyone who wants to drive it is also going to want to get in there and build it. Now that people are participating, Local Motors is focusing more attention on another major goal of the company. “The dream was to make it the most environment friendly car company in the world,” says Fishkin. Not that the Rally Fighter didn’t do a good job. It’s made with carbon fiber, and therefore is lightweight and gets decent gas mileage, as far as racing vehicles go (about 20 miles per gallon, according to Rogers). The designers also decided to
cover the car in a vinyl skin rather than using paint. And by building to order in micro-factories, Fishkins says they are cutting down on waste. The Rally Fighter proved that crowd sourcing could work, and now the hope is that we’ll see some truly futuristic cars roll out of the masses. This January, Shell presented the Local Motors community with the task of bringing the future to 5 different cities: Amsterdam, Bangalore, Basra, Houston and Sao Paulo. Each design had to confront the distinct traffic and environmental issues of that city while using as many local resources as possible. The grand prize winner, Paulo Encarnacao, a freelance designer in Portugal, took inspiration from the EVA Pod in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and put together his own green little sphere. The style is futuristic, but Encarnacao was aiming for a hybrid gas/electric car that could be built within the next ten years. “I didn’t try to do anything sci-fi or anything like that. I just tried to keep myself grounded in something real and technology that already exists,” he says. Because he was designing for São Paulo, Encarnacao had to focus on solutions to high theft rates and heavy traffic. The doors, he explains would only open with a biometric cue, such as a fingerprint scan, making it difficult to steal. To give it agility on the crowded streets, Encarnacao suggests loading his car, and others on the road with sensors that can communicate with one another and which can also alert the driver with a flashing dashboard when objects advance too quickly. In an effort to solve local problems with local materials, Encarnacao proposes building 80 percent of the vehicle with a sugarcane bioplastic. Though his peers selected Encarnacao as a finalist, Shell got the last say on who won the grand prize. Now Local Motors is moving ahead to build a prototype. Whether the Pod ever meets the road depends entirely on demand. “Shell provided a thoughtful spark,” says Fishkin. “Is there flame?” If it grabs enough attention, Local Motors could decide to open a micro-factory in Brazil or anyone else could pick up the work and drive production themselves. Such is business in the creative commons. But if it doesn’t happen in Sao Paolo, Fishkin is all but certain it will happen somewhere else very soon. “We’re going to enable communities to come into this new energy paradigm and chose local feed stocks for energy purposes and create jobs locally and allow them to leverage global expertise,” he says. Top image: The Rally Fighter. Courtesy Local Motors
Subscribe to Txchnologist’s daily email Morgen E. Peck is a contributing writer at Txchnologist. She also writes for IEEE Spectrum, Innovation News Daily and Scientific American. Her last article for Txchnologist looked at Tumanako, the open source electric vehicle program.