We’ve been rather liberal with our praise for open source – not to mention the warm fluffiness of “community” — in these pages, you might have noticed. But this month, I wanted to more than just review the result – I wanted to see this “source” they keep telling me about, and even contribute to a project, if I could (I probably can’t, but you never know). And it wasn’t open source software that I was interested in — in this new world where everyone is touting an open source something-or-the-other, I thought I’d go poke around for one of the other somethings. A couple of open source car projects have been in the news recently – so I knew that they’d be my target. While I’m all for the idea of a car everyone can contribute to, I’ve always thought that the term “open source car” is rather fishy (and not just because I can’t download one of these), so investigations are in order.
It seems that the OScar (for Open Source Car) project was the first on the scene – it started in 1999, which not long after it became fashionable to call yourself open source. It went the “everyone’s invited” way in 2006, and we gave it a nod in our seventh anniversary issue in 2008.
The featured design – and what I can only assume is the most popular – is a three-wheeled affair, which apart from looking oddly cool, is also a rather shrewd approach. In several countries, three-wheelers get classified as motorcycles, and hence aren’t subject to stringent safety laws – which means that the cost of producing one of these gets dramatically lowered; that it may end up being the first community-built death trap shall not be commented upon. But enough of that. Time to get my hands dirty with some open source car designs.
Turns out that all the information I need is in the forum – everything from the body to the engine to the safety system. Pity, then, that the forum is “offline for maintenance” for the third week running, as of this writing. This does not bode well at all.
I decided to register on the site anyway, and found that there’s a “Wiki Test” link for registered users. “Aha!” I thought, in the manner of Captain Obvious, “a wiki!” The “Car Content So Far” section is meticulously categorized, and contains such insightful comments as “Level 1 Headline”, “lalala” and “:)”, thus adequately explaining the “Test” part of the title.
This is the part where I am overcome by that creepy feeling that I’m staring at a corpse that I shouldn’t really be staring at. Surely the project didn’t just roll over and die? Ah, well. Time to look away.
The annoyingly named c,mm,n (pronounced “common”; unlike OScar, has a physical embodiment. In March 2007, c,mm,n became the world’s first open source car at AutoRAI, the Amsterdam car show.
The c,mm,n car runs on hydrogen fuel cells, has an iPhone-like dashboard that “flows through the car like a river”, and has the audacity to look like this:
But no, we must not focus on that annoying name or that silly design. It’s already one-upped the OScar in that it actually exists, and we must credit the project for that. Unlike the minimalist OScar, the c,mm,n is neck-deep in technology. There’s the aforementioned “river” dashboard, which will give you all the usual car features – speedometer, odometer and GPS route planner – and adds to it a news and email reader for when it’s in “convoy mode”. That, too, is an interesting part of the project – you can join a group of c,mm,ns and drive around as a convoy, where the cars communicate with each other and put appropriate distances between themselves, while you kick back with your New York Times newsfeed. The source for this is bound to be intriguing.
The c,mm,n project lets you join the c,mm,nity through its “online web platform”, where you can choose the parts of the project you want to contribute to, and this process is frustrating at best. You first choose a project – interior, exterior, and so on – which consists of workspaces that users have created. Interior, for example, might have workspaces such as dashboard design. If you want to see the solutions people have come up with, you need to ask for access to a workspace, and then start contributing. It doesn’t look like I’m getting any workspace access soon, though – the workspaces are rated from red to green, where green is most active; I haven’t yet seen a green workspace.
I can understand the need to prevent unqualified people from contributing nothing but hot air, but I’d have assumed that the source was more … well … open.
The Riversimple Urban Car, too, is an open source car project that’s made it to the physical world. The designs came from the 40 Fires Foundation (40FF), and in late June, Riversimple spewed out a working prototype of the Urban Car.
Like the c,mm,n, the Urban Car runs on hydrogen fuel cells, which will take it to a speed of 80 km/h and cover 320 km without refueling. The body is a light carbon composite, which makes it fuel-efficient and easier to produce. But Riversimple isn’t all about making cars – their aim is to turn cars into a “service”. The company wants to lease cars to users, so when you’re done with your current car, you can give it back to the company and they’ll lease it to someone else.
40FF’s definition of open source is rather liberal – in fact, the car’s designs are only open source in that everyone can see them. They’re under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, so if you want to build a car based on these designs, you have to cough up a nominal license fee. The car itself isn’t entirely built with open source parts either – the hydrogen fuel cell that powers it is proprietary, as are most of the electronics.
While Stallman followers are probably tut-tutting and waggling their fingers, I must point out that this approach is only practical. Unlike software, you can’t build hydrogen fuel cells in your home with no financial investment, so to expect a working fuel cell to come out of a community of benevolent volunteers is unrealistic at best. The approach also eliminates the need to wait for that fuel cell. It’s like using proprietary drivers on Linux – if NVIDIA is developing Linux drivers for its hardware, it’s better than letting their customers wait for a reverse-engineered open source version.
As of this writing, 40FF hasn’t set up an open discussion forum for designs, so I couldn’t access the designs. I’ll let you know when I find out.
The open source green vehicle
The Society for Sustainable Mobility’s Open Source Green Vehicle is a concept SUV built around their Kernel Barebone Electric Vehicle. It’s essentially a design for a driving system that’ll accept any power source – battery, hydrogen fuel cell generator, CNG power generator, and so on. If it can generate electricity, it can be stuck into the Kernel.
I like this project – rather than taking the touchy-feely “we want to change the world” approach, it takes the “the world isn’t going to change, so let’s fit our ideas into it” angle instead. They noticed that people (Americans, rather) love their SUVs, so instead of getting them to settle for a teeny two-seater, they’d give them an SUV: “If our SUV could run at four times the energy efficiency of the most passenger cars today, then – why not SUV?”
But here’s why I really like this project: they actually have the gall to say this in their FAQ section: “although electric vehicles are roughly 40 per cent more energy efficient than conventional gasoline vehicles, electric vehicles cause more sulphur oxides emissions (measured well-to-wheel) than its conventional counterpart.” At a time when you’re regarded as demon spawn for not worshipping the electric car, it’s heartening to know that someone hasn’t been blinded by the advantages.
And then I saw the dates. Apart from a news blurb about the founder releasing a book in December 2008, the site’s been silent since October 2007. Another ill-fated project? Who knows?
Two prototypes whose “source” I can’t see, and two mothballed projects – this didn’t end well at all. There’s only one unfortunate conclusion I can draw from this exercise – the “open source” in open source car is more about giving the internet something to gush about than it is about making designs available without restriction. They’re all noble intentions – simply because they’re not about “corporate greed” (yet) – but calling them open source cars probably doesn’t reflect the best judgement.