Open-Source Cars

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2538, 2007-09-21, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18-19) and their website.

When the average computer user hears the phrase "open source", the first — and possibly only — examples that come to mind are open-source operating systems, such as Linux, and computer application programs, such as Mozilla Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and Mozilla Thunderbird. The average computer programmer would probably think of additional examples, such as open-source programming editors, FTP clients, and other programs. But in all cases, they are OSs or applications.

However, the open-source revolution is now working its way into other fields, including transportation — more specifically, personal automobiles — especially those intended to be easy on the environment as well as your pocketbook.

In this article, we will consider examples of open-source collaboration, being developed by computer, automotive and electronics engineers who wish to create new cars that can benefit from the development advantages offered by the open source approach.

Farfegnugen for Free

Given Germany's age-old reputation for excellent engineering in general, and high-performance automobiles in particular, it should come as no surprise that one of the leading proponents of open-source cars is German. Markus Merz heads up the OScar project, whose goal is to design and build a car utilizing open-source principles of collaboration. In addition to developing the car itself, the project hopes to further the dissemination of the open-source paradigm.

The OScar site has a forum where participants can hold discussions in five different categories: requirements, concept, design, packaging, and distribution. For example, in the requirements category, there are currently 64 discussion threads concerning issues such as whether the vehicle should have a combustion or electric engine, what materials should be used in its manufacture, what sort of powertrain should be utilized, whether the car should have four or three wheels, and whether it should even have wheels, versus air-filled treads.

As is often true with projects that lack outside funding and revenue from sales, the OScar project has made limited progress since its inception in 1999. This is apparently due to several factors: Merz greatly underestimated the time required for such an effort; there are many technical and legal hurdles; he was overwhelmed by the huge initial response to the project when it became known.

As of this writing, the OScar is at release 0.2, and still soliciting design ideas. The group's site notes that it is "looking for a simple and functional concept to spread mobility". Merz and the other active participants — over a hundred of them — are apparently not rushing the process. Their site explains that "OScar is a hobby, not more and not less."

The success of all-volunteer projects — such as open-source software, and technical user groups — is primarily dependent upon the contributions of members and outside sponsors. In the case of the OScar project, those contributions are made by people located anywhere in the world, who wish to participate and add their own insight and expertise to the work in progress. As for sponsorship, OScar partnered with Technology Review, a German technical magazine.

Similar to the way that quality open-source software is composed of independently verified modules, the OScar will be made from at least six types of modules: engine, power system, board, shell, security system, and information systems. A key component of future progress will be the use and completion of these planned modules.

Going Dutch

Not to be outdone by their Teutonic neighbors, several organizations in the Netherlands joined forces to create their own open-source car, given the clumsy and ill-chosen name "c,mm,n" (pronounced "common"). Unlike the OScar project, these Dutch developers have made far more progress, resulting in three life-size models, which were unveiled at the AutoRAI 2007 show, on 27 March, in Amsterdam.

The project is a collaboration among the Netherlands Society for Nature and Environment and the three technical universities of Delft, Eindhoven, and Twente, with funding from government and commercial organizations. They claim that their joint product is the world's first open-source car.

Similar to the OScar, the c,mm,n incorporates much of the open-source philosophy in its development, with the blueprints and other technical drawings freely available on the project's website, and visitors invited to contribute their own thoughts and modifications. Unfortunately, the site is entirely Flash-based, and thus slow to load and possibly unusable by anyone requiring assistive technology to browse the Web.

Even worse, most of the site is in Dutch, which will limit the number of potential contributors. (Perhaps the project organizers do not want any input from the big car manufacturers in Detroit.) However, if you click on the "English Pages" link in the bottom navigation bar on the site, you can read an overview of the project, its philosophy, and a press release.

Nonetheless, the c,mm,n is intended to be as environmentally friendly and energy efficient as possible. Even though the vehicle is a 2+2 family car, it is lightweight and aerodynamic, runs on a hydrogen-powered fuel cell system, uses a hybrid powertrain for the electric motors in the four wheel hubs, and has no polluting emissions (only water). Furthermore, its brake energy is stored for later use.

Again in the spirit of open-source collaboration, c,mm,n drivers can easily share information, such as parking availability, proximity warnings, road conditions, and route planning — apparently through an intercom system.

From the Drawing Board to Your Driveway

Even though there is a tremendous need for ecologically-responsible and fuel-efficient cars, and the OScar and c,mm,n are steps in the right direction, we clearly have a long way to go. The OScar project is still in the design phase, and the c,mm,n models shown were mockups. Consequently, we cannot expect either type of vehicle to be available at car dealers anytime soon — even in Europe, which tends to be ahead of the United States in small and efficient cars.

Yet these projects can serve as encouraging evidence that there are people out there trying to leverage the latest automotive technology to make more sustainable cars, and they hope that people will not only drive those cars, but drive the development process.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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