Local Motors Tackles Carbon Crisis with Lightweight, Crowdsourced Cars

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speed up the design process—and, in theory at least, tap directly into consumers’ own ideas about what they want from their next car—by staging online design competitions. Hobbyists and professionals alike are invited to join Local Motors’ online studio and submit their 2-D sketches and renderings for periodic contests focused on cars for different geographic areas. Community members vote on the designs, and the winners get not only cash prizes ($2,000 for first place, $550 for second, $300 for third) but a shot at having their design turned into a production vehicle. The company pays the final selectees $10,000 for the right to the production-bound designs.

The other half of the Local Motors formula is to turn the selected designs into full-scale, 3-D engineering plans, designed to use as many off-the-shelf parts as possible. (Until the engineers get to the last few pieces, anyway. “When you’ve got one space left in the Tetris game and the part you’ve got doesn’t fit,” as Rogers puts it, then the company will build its own parts—hence the $50,000 Z Corporation rapid prototyping printer in one corner of its garage.)

For the bill of materials, Local Motors’ engineers will always choose the parts that will keep the finished vehicle as light, and therefore as fuel-efficient, as possible. “At highway speeds, the most important thing for fuel economy is aerodynamics,” says Rogers. “But your average speed over time is under 30 miles per hour, so you are actually more interested in the weight of the car. We use a 3.0-liter Mercedes Bluetec engine that we took out of an E320. That is a 4,200-pound car. We are shooting for a 3,200-pound car.” Which means that a lot less gas will be wasted on moving around a bunch of steel, plastic, and rubber.

Rogers says that when he went to potential investors (all angels—venture investors didn’t have much knowledge to add about bringing cars to market, he says) he told them “First we would build the website, then we would build the first car.” The company has finished the first task—the online design studio, opened in March, has already attracted 1,600 users, and just today, Local Motors announced the winners of its sixth contest, which happened to have a Boston theme. And it’s got a big start on the second task, using a design called the “Rally Fighter” submitted by Sangho Kim, a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

Local Motors Rally Fighter ModelLocal Motors engineers Mike Pisani and David Riha, design intern Aurel François, and colleagues have transformed Kim’s illustrations of the Rally Fighter into complete CAD diagrams and design specifications and have built both a full-scale foam-core model and a scaled-down clay model of the vehicle, which will look like a rather menacing sports car but will actually be specialized for off-road desert racing. Within a year, Rogers says, the whole process will culminate in a drivable car.

Which all sounds doable—plenty of people build cars from kits in less time. (In fact, Wareham, MA-based Factory Five Racing, which sells kits that hobbyists can use to build fully-functioning replicas of Mk3 Roadsters, Type 65 Coupes, and other famous racing cars, is an investor in Local Motors). My big question, though, was how Local Motors plans to scale up projects like the Rally Fighter and sell enough units to start making money.

Rogers explains that Local Motors wants to build a network of 50 small assembly plants around the country where engineers would essentially hand-craft vehicles, with help from the buyers themselves, at least in the beginning. The company will limit production to what, by Detroit standards, would be considered tiny runs of between 1,000 and 2,000 cars per year per factory. (For comparison’s sake, Volvo sold 3,500 cars in Chicago alone in 2007.)

Rogers thinks Local Motors’ cars will appeal to the same kinds of auto aficionados who sketch car designs on weekends, build cars from kits, or spend their weekends at Mini Cooper rallies. “If you’re driving your green V6 Honda Accord and you drive up next to another green Accord, you don’t roll down the window and wave,” he said wryly, having noted that I’d arrived for the interview in my dowdy 2000 Accord. “But if I’m on an … 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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