DETROIT — Forget Tesla’s electric vehicles and Google’s self-driving cars — a little-known company called Local Motors Inc. wants to be the disruptor that turns the auto industry on its head.
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Local Motors’ business model is so radical that it’s hard to comprehend at first: crowd-sourced, 3D-printed electric vehicles built in local microfactories the size of grocery stores, then sold directly to consumers.
According to Justin Fishkin, Local Motors’ chief strategy officer, the auto industry is fundamentally unchanged from the days of Henry Ford — cars are still built on assembly lines in giant factories, then shipped around the world and sold in dealerships — and it’s time to throw that model out the window.
“We think that to make local big again, you’ve got to make big things locally,” Fishkin said in an interview on the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month. “That’s the future.”
Founded in 2007 in Phoenix, Local Motors developed the unusual idea of crowd-sourced vehicles. This means anyone — suppliers, engineers, even your average gearhead — can contribute to the vehicle’s design in exchange for a royalty.
The initial result of this was the Rally Fighter, an off-road vehicle that starts at US$99,900 and would look right at home in Mad Max: Fury Road. Buyers are invited to participate in its production, a process that Local Motors calls the “Build Experience.”
The company plans to go much further into uncharted territory with its next vehicle, which has begun crash-testing and is expected to hit the market by early 2017. Dubbed LM3D, it will be the world’s first 3D-printed car series, an approach that will keep capital costs low and allow cars to be “recycled.”
An LM3D concept car, called the Swim, was revealed in Las Vegas in November, although Local Motors says this is not what the finished product will look like. The final price tag hasn’t been set, but the suggested retail price in a November press release was US$53,000.
Customers won’t be able to customize their vehicles, at least not at first, since any major changes could affect the LM3D’s crash-test certification, said David Woessner, Local Motors’ general manager for Detroit.
However, Fishkin promises that there will be substantially more flexibility for consumers than you would find at your average dealership.
“We expect you’ll be able to walk in, choose one of several car bodies, choose your powertrain, choose your options and then we’ll make it while you wait or we’ll make it so that you can come back the next day and pick it up,” Fishkin said.
“Then in two months if there’s a better battery out or if you have a child and need a back seat, we can strip the components off and recycle them into your next car.”
This will be possible because of Local Motors’ microfactory model, which envisions a series of 50,000-square-foot plants — about the size of a typical grocery store — that will build, service and recycle vehicles locally, all over the world, in small volumes. These microfactories will also act as points of sale, or what Fishkin calls “experiential dealerships.”
The first LM3D cars will be built at Local Motors’ existing microfactory in Knoxville, Tenn., but it plans to open 50 to 100 more over the next decade, including one in Berlin this year and another in either Singapore or South Korea by early 2017.
The company is also “very eagerly” looking at possible locations in Canada, Fishkin said, adding that Calgary would be near the top of his list. “We will be in Canada for sure at some point in the future, it’s just unclear where and when yet,” he said.
The idea of a 3D-printed car may raise some drivers’ eyebrows, but Fishkin says safety will not be an issue.
“People say to us, how are you going to convince anyone to get in a 3D-printed, plastic car?” he said.
“It’s fair that people have questions, but those questions will be answered before we try to sell this.”
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The car isn’t really made from plastic — it’s thermoplastic reinforced with carbon fibre, a material that’s widely used in the aerospace industry — and Woessner said Local Motors is working with the U.S. government and other partners to develop even stronger materials that can be used in the 3D-printing process.
“We’re doing some of the leading research in the world on materials and material strength and material structures, and down the line we believe that once the technology has been proven and the materials are developed, they will prove to be even safer than what currently exists,” Woessner said.
The LM3D’s components — the parts that are sourced from outside suppliers, and not 3D-printed in-house — will come from several companies in both the tech and auto industries.
“There’s this Detroit versus Silicon Valley thing that everybody’s talking about in automotive, and we naturally bridge both,” Fishkin said.