Why you don’t want your electric car to be open source

Written on:April 11, 2012
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Tesla Roadsters

I’ve recently seen a rise in the discussion about the open source movement around electric cars, and cars in general. This article in GreenBiz looks at an open source project for plug-in vehicles called Tumanako and the open source car design and manufacturing project Local Motors has been around for awhile. While these projects are all well and good (I fully support the open source movement in general), for the electric car to be a mainstream success it needs to follow the closed Apple model, not the open Google model.

If you’re not techie insider, I’ll briefly rehash the Google/Apple scenario. Google has long had a philosophy of making systems and software open and transparent, which in theory leads to the ability to tap into the minds of more and more developers — the idea is that the collective wisdom and passionate creators will deliver the best stuff out of the crowd. Apple, on the other hand, supports a closed system as a way toward better design and simplicity — Apple gadgets just work seamlessly, like magic, but they’re tightly controlled and mostly only work within their own ecosystems.

The mainstream electric car needs to support the closed, magic — it just works! — model. Why? First off, there’s little room for beta software mistakes in the automotive transportation world. An electric car that shuts down or freezes up because of half-baked software is the equivalent of a lawsuit or a PR nightmare.

Fisker Karmas

Electric car startup Fisker Automotive (which is not open source at all) has struggled in recent months partly because of software glitches, leading to some of its early adopter customers venting online, and a variety of negative press. The equivalent of Google launching a beta project onto the web, and the ecosystem of developers playing with and perfecting the tool, doesn’t really work for a mainstream car.

Yes, in a niche DIY community, open sourcing ideas about cars and electric cars is great, but I’m talking about the future of the mass produced electric car. The Nissan all-electric LEAF and GM’s extended range electric Volt are about the most mainstream, standard cars we have out there. I’ll also clarify that I’m talking about the design and creation of the car, not the ecosystem around the car’s data, which I think will eventually be an interesting and growing platform.

Secondly, for the electric car to go mainstream, it can’t continue to be pushed by the DIY, plug-in community, which is the equivalent of the open source tinkerer in the car world. Through our Green:Overdrive Show we’ve championed the DIY electric car folks, from putting a plug on a Prius, to stripping down funky cars and filling them up with batteries. And about four years ago former Intel Chairman Andy Grove compared the grassroots plug-in hybrid vehicle movement to the 1970s-era Northern California Homebrew Computer Clubs that paved the way for the personal computer.

But I hope the electric vehicle movement has finally started to move beyond that homebrew stage. Nissan has sold 27,000 LEAFs worldwide, with 11,000 of those in the U.S. GM hopes that it will soon start selling 3,000 Volts per month, with a record month of sales of 2,289 Volts in March.

Tesla is the electric car company that most resembles Apple’s model — make an electric car and a high-end brand with a cult-like following (yes, the following is still small) and try to protect the brand as it moves into the mainstream. Tesla held a successful IPO in the Summer of 2010, and its stock traded as high as $ 40 per share last month.

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