Welcome to the era of open source cars

Outside perspectives and an escape from red tape make it a powerful tool.

Even if they’ve been longtime partners, the tech sector’s influence on the automotive industry has never been stronger. OEMs in Detroit, Stuttgart, Seoul, and elsewhere are continually transforming cars to meet the demands of consumers now conditioned to smartphones (and their 18-month refresh cycle). Much of this is being driven by cheap and rugged hardware that can finally cope with the harsh environment (compared to your pocket or an air-conditioned office) that a car needs to be able to handle. Wireless modems, sensors, processors, and displays are all essential to a new car in 2015, but don’t let this visible impact fool you. The tech industry is having a broader influence on the automobile. Hardware is important, but we’re now starting to see larger tech philosophies adopted—like the open source car.

Those two words will instinctively conjure images of Richard Stallman for some, but fear not, there will be no parrots in this piece. Open source means more things than just free software, and, in the case of cars, we’re talking about collaborative platforms and diverse communities combining to design vehicles (or things for vehicles) more quickly and efficiently than the status quo. Today this ethos is being adopted by more than just plucky outsider upstarts—or startups—shaking up the establishment with their tech industry ways. Yes, some of that is going on, but even global giants like Ford have some skin in the open source game.


Recently, the consumer tech product cycle has been driven by the relentless metronome that is Moore’s law. Near-annually, we expect lighter, more powerful, and cheaper phones and computers to deploy in our pockets, on our laps, and increasingly in our cars. It’s been moving at this pace long enough now for this progress to seem normal, but even halving the development time of a new car must seem like a challenge to the automotive industry, considering it plays by a very different set of rules.

For one thing, a car is an incredibly complex product to design. It must be able to cope with temperature extremes from a Minnesotan winter to a Nevadan summer, operate for years with minimal maintenance, and still meet government safety standards and efficiency regulations. And the consequences of bad design are more than just product recalls or even massive lawsuits—people trust their vehicles with their lives daily.

Still, we’re not here to lionize the old way of car design. Large bureaucracies—particularly ones that have been around a generation or two—become siloed, hidebound, sclerotic. And if one keeps asking the same group of engineers and designers the same questions, it should not be surprising if one continues to get the same conventional answers. Opening up the design process beyond small homogenous groups inside automotive OEMs to include suppliers and even customers can have a big effect, as the German company StreetScooter demonstrates.

StreetScooter has its roots in the University of Aachen, a few miles from the point where Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium all meet. At first, its aim was to see if a collaborative approach could design a short-range electric vehicle (EV) that was both affordable and sustainable for less than the norm. "The idea was to develop a car in the context of a modular product architecture where you integrate partners at eye level," said Markus Hannen, technical director for automotive at software firm PTC (one of the collaborators on the StreetScooter initiative). "So you can use the full innovation potential of a supplier. You as an OEM don’t have to write the spec and they don’t have to respond to it, you work together."


A row of preproduction Deutsche Post delivery StreetScooters

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Traditionally, an automotive design team will sit down and work out which bits of a car will be designed in-house, what gets outsourced, and what the specs are for those systems or components. Then they publish their requirements for suppliers to bid on. It’s not hard to see why this typically takes a while. Coming up with a spec, getting all the requisite bosses’ signatures, waiting for suppliers to react, then going through the process to find the most acceptable bid sure adds a lot of steps and paperwork that don’t really contribute to the design itself.

So StreetScooter opted for a different path, using what the firm calls a "Disruptive Network Approach" to skip all the steps after "coming up with a spec" by having vehicle designers and engineers work directly with suppliers from the beginning. Under this process, a network of 80 partners took less than a year to go from a clean sheet to a functional prototype of a short-range EV that they debuted at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show.

Deutsche Post (better known to Americans as DHL) was among those who took notice. Hannen told us that DHL wanted to know if customers could be integrated into designing a product as well. As a delivery service, Deutsche Post has specific needs, and using cars from existing OEMs traditionally meant choosing from products already out there as opposed to tailor-made solutions.

As you’d imagine, the demands of a mail delivery vehicle can be quite different from a normal consumer car; it only takes one look at one of the US Postal Service’s Grumman LLVs for this to be quite plain. Work on a delivery derivative of the first StreetScooter prototype to something suitable for Deutsche Post took just six months. In fact, the German company was so pleased that it bought StreetScooter; the company is now building 20,000 of the EVs for its fleet.

Although Hannen is proud of the contribution that PTC’s Creo design software made to the program, he’s quick to point out that it’s not a closed shop; this collaboration platform supports heterogeneous environments. "In the same way that you don’t hand down a central spec which people design to, the idea is not to be prescriptive with the tools people use to create those designs," he said.

Local Motors

Local Motors is probably the name most commonly associated with open source automobiles. Its approach is closer to the archetype of open source design, leveraging the power of enthusiast communities working in their spare time. The company was founded in 2007 by Jay Rogers, who "wanted to see if the power of the crowd could be applied to larger hardware development," as company CFO Jean-Paul Capin told us. "We started building a Web app. Very few people believed it was possible at first. The idea was to reduce R&D costs and have a better vehicle at the end, because the people doing the collaborating during the design process—a mix of engineers, designers, hobbyists, and even consumers—would have a say from the beginning. It was different to the traditional process where engineers and designers don’t always work together, then they bring a product to market and involve customers through focus groups and so on."

The company has had particular success with setting up challenges for its community to respond to. "We ran 20 different challenges," Capin said. "Local Motors is about local manufacturing, so we had 20 different cities we wanted to design cars for. We started collaborating with the community with those 20 designs, then announced that whichever design won the community vote, we’d move production there. The rally car won, so we moved to Phoenix and headquartered there, leveraged local supply chains and local knowledge, and that’s how the Rally Fighter was born."

Local Motors

The Local Motors Rally Fighter.

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As with StreetScooter, Local Motors’ success has been in finding automotive niches and developing cars to fit. The Rally Fighter, the company’s first car, surely fits this description: it’s a street-legal, off-road racing car that would even cause Mad Max’s eye to stray from the last of the V8 interceptors. The company’s latest project should have broader appeal, however, as it’s much more adventurous: a road-ready 3D printed car.

Local Motors wants to disrupt more than just car design; it also wants to change the way they’re built (and eventually, sold). In 2013 the company partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, working with its manufacturing demonstration facilities. "Even now, we’re still making the Rally Fighter the same way cars have been made for the last 100 years," Capin said. "Steel tube frame chassis, rolling chassis construction. We weren’t really revolutionizing things there, but knew we could do better. Now we’re working to bring large-scale additive manufacturing to vehicles."

The first step was the LITECAR challenge, which Local Motors ran for ARPA-E (part of the Department of Energy). The result of that was the Strati, a prototype 3D-printed EV. Project [Redacted] followed with a winner announced a few weeks ago. Printing a car’s body out of carbon fiber reinforced plastic is so different from the existing way we build cars that we wondered whether Local Motors encountered any trouble with federal or state regulators. "A 3D printed car is going to be interesting," Capin said. "It’s not only an open source design, but it’s a completely new way of manufacturing. The properties of the materials, the crash test structures—these are all the things we’re working on right now. We’re working with thermoplastic suppliers like Sabic, Oak Ridge, and others to help us understand how the materials behave: crashes, wear and tear, and so on. We have to show it’s just as safe, or safer, than any other car.”

Local Motors

The Local Motors Strati. This was a demonstration that 3D-printing could work for a car’s structure.

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Given the novelty of what Local Motors is attempting, we were curious about precisely who was designing these cars. According to Capin, the company’s open source community is about 50,000 strong. "The Rally Fighter had thousands of people actively collaborating,” he said. “We have a rule: for every active member we have 10 who are active but not leading a design, and then another 100 who would review or comment on a design.” Local Motors’ community comes from over 120 different countries. It includes industrial designers working for OEM or Tier 1 suppliers doing it in their spare time to enthusiasts "who have nothing to do with engineering or design but who love cars and want to do this as a hobby," Capin told us.

As for credit, people’s effort is quantified by backend analytics in the collaboration platform, and royalty payments are set aside for community members who participate on products that go to market. In the vein of open source, however, Capin said that it was important to the company that none of the community members live off their contribution to Local Motors.

Listing image by Local Motors

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Ford’s experience with open source design comes from a different starting point than either an academic experiment (StreetScooter) or a disruptive startup (Local Motors). It’s one of the biggest and certainly one of the oldest of the OEMs, but it’s been looking at using the power of the cloud for quite a while now. K. Venkatesh Prasad is central to that effort. Prasad—who has an eclectic background for the auto industry, coming to Ford from CalTech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory by way of Silicon Valley—told us that initiative stems from a desire for collaboration. "We were looking at how hard it was to get data out of cars that the creative folks on the outside [of Ford] wanted,” he said. “[We started] exposing information that would be exposed anyway (i.e. vehicle speed or steering wheel angle) on a read-only basis."

The result is a software and hardware platform called OpenXC. The hardware is an OBD2 dongle that connects to the car with a software platform that makes it easy for users to work with the data coming from the CAN. "Our guiding principle is open source hardware and software, read-only so that things that are regulated, (safety, emissions) aren’t tampered with," he said. (This was a rather timely conversation to have, as it happened the same day news broke of the UConnect hack.)


"It turns out most people are pretty good at abiding by those guidelines," Prasad said. "Between those bookends there’s a lot of things that people can do, and most of those people are pretty good at abiding by those guidelines. They want to do the right thing. For every one person with an evil intent, you generate 10 to 15 ambassadors who really want to do the right thing, so you get a lot of good work out of the process."

Prasad’s colleague, Randy Visintainer (whom we last met at Ford’s autonomous driving lab), added that it was an innovation workshop with Eric von Hippel that opened his eyes to the potential of open source for Ford. "All the innovation we were doing was still close-knit around a known community [Ford’s staff and their suppliers] and the power of the crowd was completely missing,” he said. “We wanted to find a way to open up some of the vehicle and leverage the crowd. Out of all of those discussions and experiments came the idea of doing OpenXC. It was intended to be an open platform, started as open source software, then expanded to hardware, which was eye-opening."

OpenXC hasn’t yet been used to develop a whole car, but that isn’t its point. Instead, the platform has led to products—like Zac Nelson’s haptic gear knob for example. Nelson was a young engineer at Ford, and he wanted to add haptic feedback to his Mustang’s shifter. "He needed to rightsize the electronics, including cannibalizing an Xbox controller, then 3D printed a new knob," Prasad told us. Although the build itself was impressive, what separated this from a science fair presentation was that "he documented the entire process, what kind of materials he used, the 3D printer files, the CADCAM files, the electronics sourcing, the bill of materials, and a reference implementation," Prasad said. "His story was very interesting to us, we made a video, and it’s got a lot of interest."

3-D Printed Vibrating Shift Knob for the Ford Mustang Created With OpenXC.

Is Open Source Design a panacea?

In spite of the success stories above, open source design faces challenges in the automotive community just like it does in the tech world. "The challenges are always to integrate all the information coming from different sources," PTC’s Hannen said. "If you want to use the full innovation potential, and you don’t want to restrict how people innovate and what tools they use to do so, it’s always a challenge integrating that information. As a software vendor we’ve developed the modular product architecture with clearly described interfaces, which are packaged with the right information surrounding them. So you can develop particular components with all the information you need." (Prasad also stressed the need for good UI design.)

Intellectual Property also reared its head, as it often does when discussing innovation. "The highest concern is always security," Hannen told us. "You need a secure or trusted ecosystem. There’s some information you’d want everyone to be able to see, but individual suppliers will have IP concerns and other information will have to be protected or controlled." At Local Motors, IP is held under a creative commons license. "We protect some things like the trade dress and the names, but aside from that we don’t file for patents and IP, it’s more about speed to market," Capin said. Similarly, Ford will patent new IP created on OpenXC, but the intent isn’t to restrict innovation. "You can’t give something away if you don’t own it. This lets us take the IP we have and get some use out of it," Prasad said.

But largely these challenges are outweighed by the benefits, perhaps best summed up by Local Motors’ Capin: "Speed to market, because you can put so many more people to a project with a lot of energy and passion and diverse ideas that you wouldn’t get from more homogenous teams."

We heard similar open source praise from Prasad. "It builds added value to the core platform. It brings value in to the company, but also places value outside,” he said. “Otherwise we could just do it the standard way, publishing a request for products and getting suppliers to tender. As a firm, we can look at the conversations that the community are having, and if it’s an interesting idea we want to pursue we can license things."

To date, OpenXC has been adopted for a lot of projects at Ford with a lot of engineering efficiency. Prasad and Visintainer point to the company’s work on active grill shutters as an example. (These are flaps that close or open behind a vehicle’s grill, altering airflow into the car and changing its aerodynamic efficiency.) "It used to take a long time to wire those things to be tested, now it’s much easier for engineers to just use OpenXC," Prasad said. It starts with "a lead user doing something because it makes their job easier, not to make money, but indirectly it’s an efficiency, so it begins to help the engineering organization."

These various automotive open source advocates come at the topic from different backgrounds and with different approaches, but they can all recognize we’ve entered an era for open source cars that simply didn’t exist before. PTC’s Hannen pointed to Google’s new involvement in the car industry, as well as the rumors that abound about Apple’s auto plans as prominent examples that wouldn’t have existed 10 or even five years ago.

"Traditional industry didn’t see it as a valid option for developing a car at first,” Hannen said. “Now the idea has a lot more respect."

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