How Open Source (Ideas) Can Win the War and Save the Auto Industry

I am often dismayed by the misappropriation of the term open source. Companies apply the term to products that are free though not open source. It’s a classic marketing maneuver to leverage a brand that already has broad recognition.

A clothing company sent me a release not too many months ago about their new open source clothing line. After close inspection they meant design your own outfit from their catalog of designs that they owned. It wasn’t open source but I recall a number of open source trade publications picking up the story. Good marketing stunt but not accurate.

Free isn’t open source but they effectively seized some brand equity and got their story out. Actually the term open source implies that the product has an underlying source code. It’s a software term. It has a definition. It’s about allowing someone or anyone to take a piece of work and repackage, improve, and redistribute it under the same terms that they received it.

Open source is really a concrete manifestation of a two more the open idea and massive collaboration. The open idea is nothing new it’s actually been around forever and until legal schemes known as patents and copyright came along ideas traveled freely.

Imagine the caveman who missed out on the patent for the wheel. He would be rolling cash from that monopoly had the USPTO given him patent protection (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun).

The catalyst for distributing open ideas and driving massive collaboration has only materialized in the last 20 years or so. People from all over the world now have a cheap collaboration platform, the Internet. Email and software that enables the read-write web (like wikis –see my article on DekiWiki) allows large number of people to share ideas effectively. Before Internet became pervasive it was difficult to effectively to generate critical mass around open ideas. Now finding like-minded people is a Google search away.

Automotive Industry – Focus on Adding Value

I grew up in an auto repair shop owned by my father. At the tender age of eight I learned how to pack wheel bearings (a kids dream–permission to get elbow deep in a squishy vat of grease). Even as a small child it was apparent back there was a problem.

My dad spent as much time running for parts from various part shops as he did fixing cars. Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler all had V-8 engines, brakes, and shocks though there was very little standardization. Then Honda became popular and my dad cursed the need for another set of tools in metric sizes.

The breadth of competing car models with such a common set of features is mind-boggling. They all offer automatic transmissions, four doors, six cylinder engines, and other equipment that is standard across the industry. It doesn’t make a lot of sense competing on the delivery of such similar products. The problem I have with my choices is not the core features it’s the lack of amenities. It’s cumbersome to add an integrated GPS or MP3 player while the consumer portable models are reaching prices that are at an all time low.

I would like to see the Big Three car manufacturers started collaborating on their cars the way Novell and Red Hat collaborate on the Linux kernel. They could focus on becoming more efficient at delivering and servicing their vehicles and pool design resources to improve fuel efficiency rather than duplicate efforts on parts that have little differentiation. After all their is very little room left for innovation in the nuts and bolts of cars. However, there are miles to go in efficiency, combustion, and emissions.

As a first step card manufacturers could start supporting open standards, with fewer variations of fuel and oil filters. The interface for the radio could be standardized so you could easily pop in the stereo/GPS unit of your choice without a massive rewiring effort. Transmissions could be standardized among classes of cars.

The Toyota Scion is already a testament to the appetite for the consumer to customize their car. Toyota has a wide variety of cosmetic enhancements and encourages customizations that allow owners to express their personal style through funky paint jobs, video systems, and ground effects.

This month’s Fast Company article the Amazing Race speaks to the idea of crowd-sourcing cars. There’s OScaralso a broad second hand market for customization. In more practical ways there’s A123 Systems, Hybrids Plus, EDrive Systems, and Luscious Garage that focus on making production models more efficient and eco-friendly.

Even more progressive idea is the OScar which aims to build a car design collaboratively on the web. The project intent is to be the precursor to many more collaborative design projects int he automotive industry.

Maybe the automotive industry should start to borrow from the much younger but intellectually mature software industry. Perhaps they should focus their efforts on the adding value not on maintaining parity among products under different brands that haven’t really changed in twenty years.

Open “Source” Drones Could Save Lives

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Open Source Business Conference. During my trip the morning complimentary copy of USA Today had a front-page story about the inadequate supply of drones to supply reconnaissance to military about the enemy. The drones are a critical way to gather intelligence and prevent the loss of life.

I was instantly reminded of a talk I had attended given by Chris Anderson in February. He spoke about his hobby, the DIY Drones project. The goal of DIY Drones is to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle that can be assembled for under $1000.

It seems to me that it would be hard for the U.S military to cut through the red tape and bidding process to on their own get the cost of such thing that low. Perhaps we should start sending the components(a key component is LEGO Mindstorms building blocks) to our friends and family in the military and see what happens.

Open Prosthetics

Another application of open ideas is the Open Prosthetics Project that encourages sharing and collaboration on designs for artificial limbs. The design for the open prosthetic is a function of collaboration among many designers. The Open Prosthetics project is currently searching for help and actively recruiting collaborators in a democratic way:

Lead users are consumers (individuals or companies) who spur innovation in an industry by contributing innovations often of a greater value and at a faster pace than the companies that produce the products they use. Their innovations are often freely shared and eventually incorporated into products. Far from being an idealist fantasy, lead user innovations can be incorporated into the R&D strategy of a nimble company, enabling quick identification and anticipation of consumer needs. What we’re trying to accomplish through the Open Prosthetics community is to facilitate this phenomenon, well-described in MIT Professor Eric Von Hippel’s book, “Democratizing Innovation” .

Coincidentally, just like the UAV drones mentioned earlier the prosthetics project is also making use of LEGOs to develop prototypes.


The great products of the future are going to be built on platforms for innovation. Products with broad appeal developed by one company behind closed doors are going to be the exception not the norm. Open products will thrive on open ideas developed transparently and without pride in individual ownership.

Open source software is often described as viral (because of its licensing terms) but I prefer to think of open source as additive. Collective intelligence aggregated around projects that provide easy integration and pluggability will more broadly drive innovation well beyond that of collaboratively developed software.

For more Mark Hinkle, visit his Socialized Software blog.