Change We Can Believe In – Reinventing the US Auto Industry: Open Source the Chevy Volt

This article in the NY Times about China’s thinking strategically about electric cars was a poignant contrast to our struggles in the U.S. with the auto bailout.  It  reminded me about the adage, “when you’re up to your neck in alligators, the last thing you remember is that you were supposed to drain the swamp.”  Memo to Washington – weren’t we were to be the country innovating here?

nytimes-article-on-hybrid-cars-china

Normally I’ll keep my posts to subjects on which I have domain expertise. However:

  1. The clock is ticking on General Motors
  2. The auto industry is desperate for some new thinking and reinvention as a 21st century enterprise
  3. The administration has the opportunity to think like entrepreneurs not just bankers – by creating something new, innovative and valuable
  4. An industry gasping for its last breath is least likely to continue to invest in new products that won’t pay the bills for another decade (regardless of whether its in the national interest.)
  5. I’ve shared this with Obama’s Energy and EPA team

The auto industry bailout ought to have four goals (you can put them in your own order.)

  1. Jobs
  2. Keeping an Auto Industry as a strategic national resource
  3. Energy Independence
  4. Clean Energy

I proposed that in exchange for the GM bailout we spin out the Chevy Volt into an open source electric car platform.

Any automaker who builds the car in the U.S. will be able to build on the Volt Platform, but all drivetrain improvements are open source.

The first 10,000 units would be royalty free.  After that, other automakers would pay GM some per/car royalty.

Since it’s in the government’s interest to facilitate goals 1-4, they will subsidize the cost of the initial units so that they are affordable. Economies of scale will drop component costs (read batteries) over time.

(I will admit that taking a concept such as “open source” from the software business and applying it to the auto industry and Washington D.C. was somewhat incomprehensible at first to the Energy and EPA team. But they’re smart, let’s see what happens.)

The reality is that independent electric vehicle startups will win over time (closer to the customer, more agile, etc.) over a national platform.  As part of this spin out I’d make sure the Government also supports the nascent U.S. electric car industry and ensures it gets its share of the bailout largesse.  But the two together will kick start a new industry and save a dying one.

As I said, I am far from an expert in the auto industry, government bailouts or other related big “businesses”. But I think it’s time we take the out-of-the-box thinking that created new businesses in high tech – the concept of open source, for instance − and apply it in creative and powerful ways to reinvent floundering, older industries.

If anyone has a better idea, I would love to see it here.

14 Responses

  1. A couple random thoughts:

    1. The Chinese auto market currently treats all other cars as an open platform to build off of anyway (without paying any royalties). As proof, checkout this gallery of images:

    http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2008/fortune/0810/gallery.china_cars.fortune/index.html

    2. To make an analogy to the tech world. I think the Chevy Volt is to Netscape as Tesla is to Firefox: faster moving, more refined and a better more appealing experience.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  2. If I’m not mistaken the Volt is targeted to be very expensive and most of the innovation in electric cars is in the battery. How much innovation has GM put into the battery so far? Maybe the public can be better served by the government just subsidizing battery research.

  3. But the biggest problem with the Volt is that customers don’t want electric cars right now. And as a policy matter, it’s silly to spend time and money promoting 300 MPG cars over 30 MPG cars when you get more energy savings getting people to trade 20 MPG cars in for 30 MPG cars.

  4. [...] Steve Blank: Change We Can Believe In – Reinventing the US Auto Industry: Open Source the Chevy Volt – “I proposed that in exchange for the GM bailout we spin out the Chevy Volt into an open source electric car platform. Any automaker who builds the car in the U.S. will be able to build on the Volt Platform, but all drivetrain improvements are open source.“ [...]

  5. [...] the original post:  Change We Can Believe In – Reinventing the US Auto Industry: Open … This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 15th, 2009 at 7:00 am and is filed under Cars, [...]

  6. Steve,

    I believe its the right idea, just not the right time for two reasons. One, is that no one will be building cars anytime soon; they won’t get the capital or government dollars. Tesla which has the best chance of pulling off a legitimate mass market car will barely make the cut to get some capital infusion from the government. Second and more importantly the brand. No one wants to build on top of a losing platform. The closest analogy would be cellphones and why developers choose the iphone platform over many others even though its not the most widespread in terms of handsets. If that blog post was written two years ago we would have had a different discussion.

  7. Actually, open sourcing of a car spec is already done in Netherlands.
    Check out http://www.cmmn.org/

  8. Hello,

    It’s such an interesting idea and it makes sense.

    I think the Volt open source platform could be managed through a Web 2.0-like community of users, that would allow citizens not only buy a car based on the open-sourced Volt, but built-it themselves with the pieces and improvements they prefer, taking in consideration their own personal necessities, preferences.

    So instead of making one car for millions of people, it would be possible to build one ev for every person.

    Also, people successful with their designs could be able to earn some royalties, if they decide to do so!

    So why one can go to Lulu.com to create his/her own book, or buy an Arduino motherboard and do whatever, and it’s not possible to do the same with a car?

    It’s time to be brave. You guys are paying the taxes, so you should decide on the future of the Volt “platform”.

    Nicolás Boullosa
    ceo, *faircompanies (www.faircompanies.com)

  9. @deepa nice find…thanks for sharing

  10. Nicolas,

    I would love to believe in that vision, but its far from reality. At the end of the day every person cant go out and build their own car based on the open sourced design for one simple reason; safety. I’d be afraid to drive on a road full of DIY cars without them undergoing the rigorous safety testing. Having open source designs will democratize car building for current and aspiring car manufacturing ventures but not on an individual level.

  11. @Mahmoud

    I agree with you on safety. There are also other concerns, such as economies of scale, production efficiency, etc.

    Instead of a Lulu.com for cars, think how Nike allows the visitors of its shoes’ customization site to choose from a wide range of colors, designs, materials.

    I wouldn’t see it as a free-tunning movement, but more as a Web-2.0 improvement system.

    It comes to my mind the “labs” option in Gmail. The “Volt Customization Platform” would be the Gmail, and the customization options the “labs” option.

    So safety wouldn’t be compromised. I think you went too fast refuting such an idea.

    Ask the writer of the post if he didn’t invest in a company because they had “too crazy” ideas.

  12. [...] most successful entrepreneurs. He writes a great blog which I read frequently. One of his recent posts talks about the idea of open sourcing the Chevy Volt [...]

  13. “the Energy and EPA team. But they’re smart, let’s see what happens”

    That’s the funniest thing I’ve read on the Intertubes in years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 163,694 other followers