Crowdsourcing Your Car

The Local Motors Rally Fighter. The crowd loved the design. (Photo: Local Motors).

Can cars be crowdsourced? Harvard Business School grad John "Jay" Rogers is betting on it. His company, Local Motors, is selling the rather ungainly $75,000 off-road Rally Fighter — perhaps the first crowdsourced car — though others are likely to follow.

For me, the car itself (an ultra-macho rally car with a Corvette-sourced 430 horsepower LS3 engine and 16 miles per gallon) is less interesting than the way it was created. The design, by a Pasadena Art Center student named Sangho Kim, was among many submitted through the Internet after Local Motors sponsored a competition and invited submissions from leading schools.

Not bad, if you can get your car design for one-time prize money (in this case $10,000), and then have suggestions for improvements come pouring over the transom for free. That's a less-ugly street version of the Rally Fighter at left. The community has 20,000 people posting thoughts, 200 of them regularly. Some of the ideas really improved the car, including nixing the intended BMW diesel engine (too hard to fix during desert rallies) and improving both door fit and suspension.

According to Playboy’s Neal Gabler, “To supporters and critics alike, the advantage of using a community is that you get thousands of ideas and critiques — the wisdom of the crowd — without having to pay for it.” You can also gauge the marketplace’s enthusiasm for your vision based on their response to what you’re doing.

Gabler told me, “Jay Rogers likes to say that he didn’t invent a car company, but a way of doing business in the 21st century. It’s a paradigm where the consumer is the creator.”

This is certainly not the way secretive Detroit, Tokyo and Stuttgart usually work — instead of closely guarded design plans, Local Motors posts details about the car and how to make it, and invites people to build their own. If you choose a car from the factory, you can come down and spend six days helping put it together. Here’s the wiki, and here’s where you can source the 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) software to build your own Rally Fighter from parts. It takes 12 days, apparently.

Since LM had a virtual engineering staff on tap, it was able to get its car in production in less than 18 months, and also delivered a prototype for a military version in just four months.

OK, that’s all good. LM has sold 60 Rally Fighters so far. Are they good cars? Can’t tell, but one, serial #LMRF0002, the former CEO’s car and a finisher in this year’s Gumball Rally, recently sold on eBay for $50,000. Kind of a steep discount, but perhaps it took a beating. Rogers is saying his company will be profitable by the end of next year.

I’d like to see what LM does with its crowdsourcing concept. Maybe the fire-breathing Rally Fighter was a good car to get attention — as was the Tesla Roadster — but the world ultimately doesn’t need another testosterone-fueled rocket car. What else could you build? With partners that include Domino’s Pizza (for a delivery vehicle), Peterbilt Trucks (a new model) and B’Twin Bicycles (for an adult tricycle), LM is exploring some things. There’s a full page of concepts here. I like the idea of an easily reproduced modular tandem (two-seater) that could be built in a garage or backyard. The shade-tree mechanic lives again!

What I’d like to see LM build is a low-cost battery electric (under $20,000) with decent range and a really cheap city car ($10,000 or less). It looks like LM is heading in that direction with its Forge projects.

Here's a look under the hood on video:

There are some precedents. Smith Electric Vehicles is localizing its small truck plants to be closer to the fleet buyers. And I was inspired by designer Yves Behar’s concept for a hackable urban vehicle (at right) that would save money by having identical front and rear sections. Behar earlier pioneered the $100 laptop, so a car along those lines also makes sense. But Behar’s car is a concept, and the Rally Fighter is already on the ground, making a vivid impression.