A Car Company at the Web Innovators Group?

Last night’s 20th meeting of the Web Innovators Group at Cambridge’s Royal Sonesta Hotel was possibly the largest ever, spilling from the usual ballroom into the adjacent conference rooms and attracting a crowd so thick that it was difficult to see the demo tables. Perhaps the high attendance was to be expected, given the layoffs rolling through the local tech community and the fact that more entrepreneurs and software developers these days are looking for their next gigs. But what was unexpected was the spotlight role assumed by Local Motors, a Wareham, MA-based startup with dangerously disruptive ideas about automobile manufacturing.

John “Jay” Rogers—a Harvard MBA and former Marine who is the president, CEO, and co-founder of Local Motors—explained during one of the meeting’s three “main dish” presentations that the company intends to drastically reduce the time and expense that goes into developing new car models, by building a nationwide network of “micro-factories” where car buyers themselves would be involved in the design and construction of their vehicles. The Web will play a key role in the process, as the company hosts online competitions where amateur car designers from around the world can submit concept sketches and other community members can vote on their favorite designs. The company plans to purchase the licensing rights to the winning designs and make them into working prototype cars, Rogers said.

A concept car model from Local Motors One car that won a contest on the site, the Rally Fighter, will become Local Motors’ first production vehicle; the company recently brought the car’s designer, Sangho Kim, to its Wareham facility for a week of full-immersion development work. “Where GM would spent $100 million to get this far, we’ve spent $10,000 on a website, a prize, and a plane ticket,” Rogers said.

The company, which beat out its two competitors in the traditional audience-favorite text message voting at the Web Inno meeting, says it plans to build its cars around a standard chassis and sell them for about $50,000—not exactly an affordable price, but one that may attract a certain class of buyers who want to see their car being built. Don’t ask me right now how Local Motors plans to build low-production-quantity cars efficiently, certify their safety, or provide for serviceability—but I’ll get to the bottom of it in a future story.

The other two main-dish presenters were Cambridge, MA-based Web analytics startup Crimson Hexagon (which I profiled last month and therefore won’t describe here), and Stratham, NH-based Skyward Innovations, which rolled out a free travel assistance service earlier this year called TripChill. Built to work with mobile phones, the beta-stage service is designed to supply business travelers with the real-time information they need to manage their trips while they’re en route.

The way Alex Shore, Skyward’s co-founder and CEO, explained it during an entertaining on-stage sketch, the TripChill system is at its best when travelers are coping with unexpected changes, such as a flight cancellation that leaves them stranded overnight in an unfamiliar airport. Once users have submitted their flight itineraries and hotel reservations to TripChill, the system can monitor online sources for schedule changes and send text-message updates. Say a traveler gets stuck overnight at Chicago’s O’Hare International: TripChill reasons that the user probably needs a hotel room for the night, and automatically sends … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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