Admit it, when many of you think of open source you assume software. But new concepts of open source in hardware and design promise to transform many industries. Open Source's allure of faster, more agile development, quicker innovation and accelerating evolution of technology doesn't apply to software alone.
The first time I heard of open source hardware was when both my friend Brad Feld and Fred Wilson wrote about Bug Labs in their blogs. I was intrigued by the idea but didn't quite grok it. I knew that if Brad and Fred invested in it there must be something to it and I would watch it develop. But the idea seems to have some legs.
The auto industry could be one place where open source hardware and design stand things on its head. The auto industry is certainly ready for change. It looks like the next generation of vehicles could come from upstart companies seeking a better distribution and development model than the behemoths who dominate now (sounds familiar to us in the software world doesn't it?)
I came across two articles today on open source vehicles. Two in one day is just too coincidental. Usually where there is smoke there is fire and I can smell something cooking here. The open source vehicle model has the potential bring real change to the struggling auto industry.
The first article is in The Ecologist and talks about a company called Riversimple. Riversimple has spent the last 9 years developing a hydrogen fuel cell powered electric car. The care promises to be ultra efficient and exponentially cleaner than anything available today. I will spare us all of the technical details of the car's performance and jump to the quick though (there is a good YouTube at the end of this story though if you are interested in that stuff). Another breakthrough concept that the Riversimple people have is releasing the designs for the car under an open source licensing model. Hugo Spowers of Riversimple had this to say about an open source model for autos, "There is such a yawning gap between the environmental performance of cars and what is sustainable, that I don’t believe a purely competitive world can ever get us there. Open source really does produce this constant and very rapid drive toward absolute excellence, which I think is needed in the current circumstances. I have precious little faith in regulation ever pushing us in that direction."
You know what, forget he is talking about cars and his statement can be applied to open source anywhere. Riversimple has put their money where their mouth is too. They have established the 40 Fires Foundation that is open to all to share expertise and develop technologies. According to the Ecologist article the foundation already has more than 300 members. The Riversimple folks believe the open source model will also be particularly appealing to 3rd world countries that won't have to pay the licensing and other overhead costs they currently do for large corporations and countries allowing their technology to be used in these smaller countries. Again, not dissimilar to open source software.
The second article on open source vehicles is on the TREXA EV electric platform. The platform allows 3rd parties to build upon a standard chassis with any type of body and accessories they would like. I did not see any mention of licensing though and in this case, open source I think refers more to the flexibility than in actually allowing for innovation in the underlying vehicle.
Both of these go to show that what is appealing about open source in software can be equally appealing in hardware. We may yet one day see a Red Hat of the car industry.