Henry Ford's vision was to build a motorcar for the multitudes. His answer came in 1908 with the debut of the Model T at $850.
But to make the car even cheaper and more accessible, Ford launched another innovation about five years later: the moving assembly line. Piecing the car together in multiple stages along a conveyer belt meant the average assembly time dropped, productivity increased, Model T sales shot up and their cost came down below $300.
Today, in the quest to make transportation greener, a couple of innovative companies are turning Ford's model on its head. For these companies, getting cleaner vehicles on the road isn't just about the ability to make cars that run on alternative fuels; it's about how and where these vehicles are made.
This month, Local Motors, a vehicle innovation company, launched its second microfactory in Las Vegas. The facility is part of the Downtown Project, an initiative to revitalize downtown Las Vegas led by Tony Hsieh, CEO of the successful online shoe store Zappos.com.
The revolutionary model behind Local Motors is that it can build specialized products in low volumes by employing innovative design and building techniques. By using 3-D printing to help realize crowdsourced designs, made entirely by an online community of nearly 60,000 users from more than 130 countries, Local Motors can make products perfectly suited to local needs.
"The most exciting thing for us about the Vegas microfactory is ... we're making good on our promise to make vehicles in local ecosystems that are different from one another," said John Rogers, co-founder and CEO of Local Motors and former Marine.
The idea is that this flexibility will allow for greater availability and, ultimately, adoption of cleaner fuels. "When you go to an area that has a hydrogen economy, you need to be able to make a car that works there. And when you go to an area that has a great natural gas economy, you need to be able to make a car that works for that," he said.
Introducing the microfactory
The Ford model brought personal mobility to the masses, but it also built rigidity into the vehicle manufacturing process, according to Rogers. In traditional processes, a vehicle and the parts used to make it must be produced at high volumes in order for automakers to recoup their investments in the supply chain. This process makes it difficult for established car companies to justify introducing a disruptive technology unless they're confident consumers will buy it.
The ability to build locally in small numbers removes that barrier and creates opportunities to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption and 30 percent of emissions. With the ability to remix vehicles in small volumes, Local Motors gives communities the freedom to make a car that runs on a fuel other than oil.
Local Motors' first microfactory was launched in Phoenix, and five more are expected around the world by the end of 2014. The company has already produced a street-legal off-road vehicle called the Rally Fighter; a motorcycle called the Racer; and its newest product, the Cruiser, a vintage-style motor-powered bicycle.
The company is now looking into making an electric car for Las Vegas consumers.
The Las Vegas microfactory will have 16 3-D printers of various types to realize the online community's tailored designs. Normally, to make a new automotive component, companies have to develop a cast-iron tool at huge expense and amortize the cost by producing it at scale. 3-D printing allows Local Motors to skip that costly process and make only as many new parts as it needs.
"The last 100 years attributed to Henry Ford was the last industrial revolution. The next industrial revolution is the ability to take data, digital plans, and print something without having to spend a lot of money on tooling, and that's what's so exciting about our community," said Justin Fishkin, Local Motors chief strategy officer.. "The ability to collaborate on digital designs and then share them with a machine that will make whatever the data tells it to make, in batches as small as one unit, is changing the game."
Local Motors still sources most of its vehicle parts from existing automotive supply chains. The online community may choose to use a taillight from Honda or a door handle from Miata. 3-D printing then comes in to make specific vehicle components that don't already exist.
But it could play a larger role as technology advances, Fishkin said. 3-D printing started as a way to rapidly build prototypes, "but as 3-D printing moves beyond powder and plastics to metals, we move along with it into large production components for vehicles and then potentially full vehicles," he said.
50 pieces equals a car
One pioneering company, Kor Ecologic, is already trying to do just that. In 2010, the independent design team based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, created Urbee with the aim to make it the "greenest car possible."
The company's second prototype, Urbee 2, is expected to be the first 3-D printed car to hit the road in 2015. With an anticipated mileage of about 290 mpg, it will try to cross the U.S. on just 10 gallons of fuel.
Urbee 2 is a plug-in hybrid vehicle designed to run on electricity and biofuel, Jim Kor, engineering consultant and head of Kor Ecologic, said in an interview last month at the GreenBiz Verge conference in San Francisco. But the key to its high fuel efficiency is really in the design, he said.
Kor crafted the car to be sleek and lightweight with a low center of gravity. The result is a vehicle that looks more like a flying saucer than a commuter car. Urbee has a drag coefficient of just 0.149. By comparison, the Tesla Model S, with industry-leading aerodynamics among production cars, has a drag coefficient of 0.24.
Through a partnership with 3-D printing company Stratasys, Kor Ecologic was able to enhance the Urbee design by removing all the excess components and whittling the design down to a few dozen 3-D printed pieces.
"Because 3-D printing allows us to make very complex things, we estimate there's about 40 to 50 big pieces that make up almost the whole car, instead of hundreds of thousands of little pieces," Kor said. "That's where I think the benefit lies."
He added, "The greenness came because we just left everything out that you didn't need. So here we just had only one rule: If it takes a lot of energy, you can't have it."
To conserve energy, Urbee 2 won't have air conditioning or a fancy interior. Still, Kor says he gets up to 30 emails each day from people who are interested in purchasing the vehicle once it's made. Kor and his team are now looking to raise $3 million to bring their Urbee 2 designs to life.
Exploiting safety loopholes
As these companies progress, Local Motors and Kor Ecologic could succeed in putting cleaner vehicles on the road. However, the only reason any of their cars are on roads today is regulatory loopholes.
In the case of Urbee, it's technically classified as a motorcycle because it has only three wheels. This means it doesn't have to pass typical automobile crash tests. To enhance the safety of the vehicle, Kor adopted features from the racetrack and installed a five-point seat belt and a roll cage and will have his drivers wear helmets.
Local Motors' Rally Fighter is street legal because its buyers are a part of the building process, so it gets unique status as a custom-built vehicle. Small companies have to take advantage of these special regulations because the cost of conducting federally mandated tests is prohibitively high, Rogers said.
"Definitely in the United States we have hobbled ourselves from innovation" with the safety testing process, he said. "It keeps big companies honest, but for a small company trying to do things better or safer or with more technology, there's a tax that keeps such companies out of business, and that's the cost of doing the federally mandated test."
Martin Eberhard, co-founder and former CEO of Tesla Motors, said he was wary of any new vehicle that can't complete mandated crash testing.
"Whenever something -- especially something as dangerous as a car -- comes along with a design that can avoid any safety standards, I get really suspicious," he said.
But he acknowledged that unconventional car companies have an advantage over established car companies. Major automakers have a hard time justifying a major bet on alternative technologies when their supply chains are already set up to build internal combustion engines, Eberhard said.
"Any company that's successful in its field ... they have the most difficult time embracing a technology that will make what they're already doing now obsolete."
The advantage of small, specialized car companies is that they have the ability to innovate, he said. "One of these little companies just might come up with a new idea that takes off."
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.