Cars Technica: Welcome to the Era of Open Source Cars

Even if they’ve been longtime partners, the tech sector’s influence on the automotive industry has never been stronger. OEMs in Detroit, Stuttgart, Seoul, and elsewhere are continually transforming cars to meet the demands of consumers now conditioned to smartphones (and their 18-month refresh cycle). Much of this is being driven by cheap and rugged hardware that can finally cope with the harsh environment (compared to your pocket or an air-conditioned office) that a car needs to be able to handle. Wireless modems, sensors, processors, and displays are all essential to a new car in 2015, but don’t let this visible impact fool you. The tech industry is having a broader influence on the automobile. Hardware is important, but we’re now starting to see larger tech philosophies adopted—like the open source car….

A row of preproduction Deutsche Post delivery StreetScooters developed with PTC Creo and open source methods.

Opening up the design process beyond small homogenous groups inside automotive OEMs to include suppliers and even customers can have a big effect, as the German company StreetScooter demonstrates….

“The idea was to develop a car in the context of a modular product architecture where you integrate partners at eye level,” said Markus Hannen, technical director for automotive at software firm PTC (one of the collaborators on the StreetScooter initiative). “So you can use the full innovation potential of a supplier. You as an OEM don’t have to write the spec and they don’t have to respond to it, you work together.”

StreetScooter opted for this “Disruptive Network Approach” by having vehicle designers and engineers work directly with suppliers from the beginning. Under this process, a network of 80 partners took less than a year to go from a clean sheet to a functional prototype of a short-range EV that they debuted at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show.

Deutsche Post (better known to Americans as DHL) was among those who took notice. Hannen told us that DHL wanted to know if customers could be integrated into designing a product as well. As a delivery service, Deutsche Post has specific needs, and using cars from existing OEMs traditionally meant choosing from products already out there as opposed to tailor-made solutions.

As you’d imagine, the demands of a mail delivery vehicle can be quite different from a normal consumer car; it only takes one look at one of the US Postal Service’s Grumman LLVs for this to be quite plain. Work on a delivery derivative of the first StreetScooter prototype to something suitable for Deutsche Post took just six months. In fact, the German company was so pleased that it bought StreetScooter; the company is now building 20,000 of the EVs for its fleet.

Although Hannen is proud of the contribution that PTC’s Creo design software made to the program, he’s quick to point out that it’s not a closed shop; this collaboration platform supports heterogeneous environments. “In the same way that you don’t hand down a central spec which people design to, the idea is not to be prescriptive with the tools people use to create those designs,” he said. Read more.