Car Sourcing: BMW Teams with Local Motors

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on September 26, 2012

From The News Desk

Some months ago I was on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, riding in the front of an off-road monster of a car called a Rally Fighter, when the driver asked if I wanted to go airborne.

“Hell, yeah,” I said. I mean, who wouldn’t?

He grinned then told me to push the back of my head against the seat. Good advice. I don’t think my insurance would have covered whiplash. He revved the engine and in seconds we were up to 70 MPH, screaming toward a makeshift ramp outside the Local Motors factory, which is where the car was built. As we hit the end of the ramp the car sailed upward. Then gravity worked its magic and quickly pulled us down to earth, the pit of my stomach reminding me of the craziest airplane turbulence I’d ever experienced. We weren’t airborne long, but the landing was like being squeezed and jostled in a punk rock mosh pit.

Ah, the Rally Fighter. Every kid’s dream. Like a real-life version of the coolest Matchbox car. Ever. Gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway. Made for off-road driving but it’s fine for the street, too. And while it’s about 1,000 pounds lighter than your usual SUV, it’s safe, equipped with an internal roll bar. Handles like a dream and has the usual amenities inside. And perhaps the most surprising aspect of the car: It’s not a design-by-committee mishmash. Instead, it was co-created by a community of thousands of auto enthusiasts.

Crowdsourcing is in, so much so it’s got to be on its way out. Practically every day a pitch hits my email inbox, informing me of the latest crowdsourcing startup. You can Crowdsource funding (Kickstarter), inventions (Quirky), writing projects (Servio) and microtasks (Mechanical Turk). Then there are the non-commercial applications. Iceland crowdsourced its constitution. The FBI turned to the wisdom of crowds to assist in a murder investigation, requesting the public's assistance in deciphering two encrypted notes found in the pocket of a victim dumped in a field. Researchers have turned scientific puzzles into a game, inducing players to solve mysteries for them. And one Carnegie Mellon professor has turned to the crowd to translate the entire World Wide Web.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of crowdsourced news: The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others asked readers to sift through a stash of Sarah Palin emails written when she was Alaska governor. The Guardian crowdsourced expense reports of wayward British politicians. wants users to crowdfund news articles. I once crowdsourced a column.

But when it comes to the most innovative use for crowdsourcing I think Local Motors car-creation-by-committee ranks up there with Quirky’s quirky inventions and University of Washington’s folding proteins.

I first learned of the company, when it joined with DARPA to design and manufacture a combat-support vehicle for the military. More than 600 Local Motors community members submitted designs and the winner was a young designer named Victor Garcia, who entered the contest in the hopes of snagging the $7,500 first prize — enough to pay for the birth of his child (he had inadequate insurance). The result was the rad-looking XC2V Flypmode, which was designed and manufactured in 14 weeks at a cost of roughly $680,000, compared to the billions of dollars and years the military normally spends on developing and deploying new technologies.

The company has hosted several contests to tap the collective wisdom of its community, now 20,000 strong, to design everything from door handles to custom car skins, a modernistic tricycle, vehicles designed to navigate crowded developing world cities, trucks, and even a Dominos Pizza delivery truck.

Now it’s teamed up with BMW to design “next-generation mobility solutions for life in the ‘Mega-Cities’ of the year 2025 and beyond,” to grapple with “amplified challenges,” an outgrowth of “increasing urbanization, rapid population growth, changing infrastructures and environmental pollution.”

“Our community is able to accomplish in just weeks what has historically taken manufacturers years to achieve,” Jay Rogers, a former marine who founded Local Motors in 2007, says. What’s more, after these 20,000 auto enthusiasts, gear heads, and car porn fans are through, the vehicle, which is constructed largely from off-the-shelf parts, has already been market tested. You’d think having thousands of people weighing in on a project would dampen innovation; on the contrary, done right, it engenders the exact opposite effect.

But even Rogers hasn’t figured out how to turn over manufacturing to the crowd. Instead, he has a staff of experienced car builders, although they usually just oversee the building of a new Rally Fighter. That’s because Rogers requires buyers to spend a few days at the factory and put their new car together themselves, a hobbyists kit on steroids.

I’ve never seen a factory quite like this, so spic-n-span clean and orderly. Rogers takes me on a tour while a bevy of Rally Fighters in various states of undress lounge about. A technician shows me how he they use vinyl wrap instead of paint to finish the exterior. Rogers points to a Rally Fighter and explains how they figured out they had to change the exposed metal door handles. Grab it in the hot Arizona sun, and it’ll sear your hand, he explains.

Sometimes the crowd can miss something. Not often, though.

[Image courtesy]