Local Motors: Crowdsourcing the American Car

Image: Local Motors

Here's how it works: designers submit their concepts online, the community votes, then Local Motors works with the winners to bring these cars to life. This process, says founder Jay Rogers, has more in common with the way Mozilla makes Firefox and American Idol picks stars than the way Detroit has traditionally made automobiles. Rogers tells TreeHugger Radio about the first crowdsourced car, the Rally Fighter, and what Local Motors can mean for sustainability.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download. Special thanks to the Pop!Tech conference for helping arrange this interview.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: You've got this unique take on how you source your designs. Tell us a little bit about how this works.

Jay Rogers: Well the "a-ha!" moment for me was looking at how many industrial designers who specialize in transportation design don't get a job at a car company. The best example of this is that only 12 to 20 percent of a graduating class gets a job at a place they desire to work. And so for us there is all of this incredible talent out there that doesn't ever get turned into a car. And to me that is really sad. It isn't anyone's fault in particular, but it's just the nature of the industry.

So we wanted to find a way to uncork that pent-up desire to get people's ideas out there for the customers--to see them in a real way. So we created Local Motors and that means we created the first online design and development community where we run competitions and co-create together.

A lot of people call it crowdsourcing, and sometimes that word fits really well. Other times I think of it more as co-creation. But together we develop both the individual little widgets on the cars, the accessories, and then in the built environment we engineer the car itself.

TreeHugger: You've got this factory in Massachusetts. So give us a visual: I show up, I walk in. What do I see?

Rogers: Well even before you show up, you talk to people out there that own a car and are part of this club, part of this experience. It's a new worldview on cars. And so it's a very exciting thing. All the people that currently come to my micro-factory in Massachusetts, they sort of giggle to themselves when they come in there: "Wait a minute, this isn't a car company. This is a hybrid between a manufacturing facility and Disney World." And so that's your experience when you come in.

You feel that you are part of something that you are not typically able to be part of. Yes, there are companies that allow you to do a driving experience with their car. Or companies that allow you to come and tour a plant, if you can take a vacation and travel long distance.

But within an IKEA driving distance of your hometown, that just never happened before. So when you come in, you are included in that manufacturing, sales, and service experience.

And for a customer we have sort of this divided hockey glass wall. If you have ever been to a hockey game, it's like that, where if you are not a customer, or haven't bought yet, you are on the one side of the hockey glass. You can see, you can smell, you can hear, but you can't touch. But if you become a customer you get to wear the t-shirt, if you will. If you come inside the hockey rink and you're in the game. So that's the crispest way to describe it.

TreeHugger: And the 'local' part of Local Motors is that you plan to have these micro factories dotted all over the place, so there is ideally one pretty close to you?

Rogers: Absolutely. We would like to put them in 35 to 50 locations across the country. So we would like to be within a four to five hour drive of anyone who wants one.

TreeHugger: So how does this contrast to the way Detroit or Japan or Europe makes cars?

Rogers: The average car production time from concept to showroom floor is five to seven years--let's say six years on average. And that doesn't mean an extension of a model year where you improve the seats. That means a new concept, a new car. Then 200 million dollars is the average cost to do a new car program. And so our first target was 18 months and $2 million to do a car program. That's comparing 18 months to six years, and comparing $2 million to $200 million.

Now it's not that we've invented something new that allows us to be able to do this. It's our worldview of how we allow people to conceive of what's important in a car. And that is made possible by our micro volume strategy. So when you do small lots, you can utilize a different set of components: the latches, the switches, the hinges, the door handles, the lights, the engines, the transmissions. All the components that go into a car can be sourced from the world producers that create them.

If you think about typical car companies today, they and their suppliers make hundreds of thousands of parts for large models. And this is across Renault and Citron and Fiat and Chevy and Toyota and Honda. If you think about all the cars there are in the world, both new and used, the industry is massive.

And it's funny when you think about how much replication there is in that massive industry. Every car company has trunk hinges of their own. And every car company has trunk latches of their own. And not of their own but from model to model, they have different ones. We thought that was a very unsustainable thing to continue doing.

So that gives you a window into the process. It's expensive, it's long, it's slow, and therefore their human nature as a company is to resist change, since it takes a long time and great expensive. So they try to stretch out models as much as possible so that they get paid back for all the effort they put into it.

Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Designers | Diesel | Driving | Massachusetts | TreeHugger Radio