Local Motors: Crowdsourcing the American Car

TreeHugger: We are dealing with a potentially catastrophic climate crisis and we know that cars are one of the main tools we've have for screwing up the planet's carbon cycle.

Rogers: Or fixing it!

TreeHugger: Okay, so what is Local Motors bringing to the table that changes this game?

Rogers: I left the Marine Corps in order to do something that I felt would be very meaningful, perhaps even more meaningful than the job I was doing before. And it's central to the reason why I started this business, so I thank you for asking that question. It is, to me, most important that that side of the story gets told. We have in many senses quietly given up on cars as something we can enjoy because we feel they are so pollutive and part of an unsustainable way of life. And I don't think that has to be the case. So for us we look at the whole system--not just at the car, but the process.

At Local Motors we talk about buying into an experience, and this is very much part of that experience. There is sustainability in the way that we look at jobs: we are very focused on frictional unemployment and how large plants, not just in the car world, can take over a town. Then if they go away--which is the mostly likely scenario--the town reels from the economic destruction, and it lasts for generations. And so we thought: wow, is there a way to keep people in their living wage, near their home? That would be a wonderful thing to pursue.

Then of course there's the car itself. We want to be able to create a more sustainable ecosystem around the car. And that has to do with things like how fuel efficient the car is, and how the car itself emits particular emissions or CO2. Those are the things we typically think of.

But then there are questions like: does the car sit on a lot for an average of 70 days? Every car, on average, sits on a lot for more than 70 days. And when you have the thing being moved around every two to three days, it's not the individual car, it's the process that is incredibly caustic to the environment. Those cranks-over emissions that are happening are not very efficient, and then also any of the cold soak emissions that are on the block get hit by the rain, because these things sit out on the lot. Then it runs off onto the blacktop at the dealership, ending up in the stormwater.

But then looking forward into the future we wanted to be able to create a business that would allow rapid adoption of change, of technology. And that goes to the earlier question of the difference between the way we do things and the way the traditional automotive industry does things. The very point that we go for small volume, rapid change, is so that we can be a rapid adopter of change.

Those make up the footprint, in a short answer, of all the things that really improve the sustainability of the car, in our eyes.

TreeHugger: You source a lot of your guidance from the wisdom of crowds. If the wisdom of crowds is telling you that it wants an electric vehicle or a hybrid, is Local Motors going to start producing ultra-green cars?

Rogers: Absolutely. Let's talk about that specific point that you just mentioned. I think that the world often doesn't have the opportunity to interact and make their point known. There has been an uncomfortable feeling about hybrid cars, for example. They came out as being a more efficient option from the point of view of oil end-use. But there's a lingering question of who services them, where does the battery go when it is done, and how exactly does that pay off work, especially when you compare hybrids against things like a diesel engine system? You now have highly-efficient Volkswagens on the market, like the 40 to 60 mile-per-gallon diesel Passat.

You have people that are constantly coming in and reporting 59 miles-per-gallon on my Passat over these last three month. That's better than a Prius, or that's at least as good. And yet, it has half of the complexity that's in the Prius, and no lithium ion battery that you have to worry about recycling.

When we as customers really look at what we use (and diesel versus hybrid is just one example), you really want to be involved in that education, and you want to be involved in that decision process so you can choose what is the greenest car for you. And I think only by being involved in that and letting customers be part of that debate, are we really going to move that technology forward.

And the other thing is that because we don't build those components, we are very much more able to source them for various sources. There are now hybrid systems developed by many different auto manufacturers, some of which would love an additional revenue and profit stream from selling their system to a car maker. Ford started off with their hybrid system from Toyota, for example.

So, the answer is yes, we can offer it. We can offer dual diesel/CNG, those conversion kits are already available. We can offer an electric system; those are even more widely possible because of the fact that there are a few car companies that actually own the rights to an electric system. Those are the purview of a couple of great battery startups, some of which aren't even in the car industry. So, yes, it's possible and we certainly intend to do it.

TreeHugger: Tell us a little bit about the your flagship car, the Rally Fighter.

Rogers: It's such a fun car for us to build. When you think at people like Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford and Preston Tucker, these figures are larger than life as the heads of their car companies. Typically you hear stories about how they gave the nod to the Tucker Torpedo or to the Ford Taurus. Our company is so not like that, we let the community give the nod to the vehicles that we do. The Rally Fighter was something that came out of the fact that this young man, Sangho Kim, said, 'I want a performance, off-road racing vehicle inspired by a P-51 Mustang, and this is what it would look like if I did it. Is it buildable?'

And we went through that with him, and this has been a delightful discovery. The community loved that idea. There aren't a lot of vehicles like that. We have SUVs, which are notoriously watered down from what they can actually do. The community was looking for something that was just a really aggressive off-road capable machine that maybe could be lowered down in ride height so that you could drive it on the street and look more like a Grand Touring Coupe.

That's the basis of the Rally Fighter, so we call it a premium, authentic, off-road experience designed by Sangho Kim. That's where it developed and we had a great time doing it.

TreeHugger: What's it running on?

Rogers: It's diesel. It's actually running on clean diesel, and we've got it packaged currently to run a number of clean diesel engine systems. The first one that it will come out with is the BMW M-57 power plant, which is the in-line six, 50 state legal, clean diesel engine system.

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


treehugger slideshows