Open source automobiles?


Something new is happening in central England. Starting in 2012, the local government of the City of Leicester will be taking delivery of 30 new electric cars. Manufactured in the UK by Riversimple, the two-seater cars are made from carbon-fibre and are powered by 6 kW hydrogen fuel cells combined with energy recovery from breaking. So far so normal. There are a range of prototype electric and fuel cell cars being produced all over the world, and 30 is a pretty low number. 

What is interesting about Riversimple is its business model. To begin with the cars are all leased for a monthly fee, not bought, and secondly, all the technology and design is open source. According to its publicity, Riversimple hopes that by making its technology available to all they will be able to maximise innovation and efficiency. It seems a daring strategy for what is effectively a technology start-up, but I can see their point. In attempting something so radically different to the existing model of car design and ownership they are taking on one of the biggest industries in the world. Perhaps their only chance of success will depend on trying something completely new. I’m sure the publicity won’t hurt either. ::continue::

And what of the car itself? Well, I think they look kind of cool. I am not sure they will cut much ice in North America or Australia, but for Europe or Asia they will not seem so out of place. This is unashamedly and urban vehicle though, with a range of only around 240 miles and a top speed of just 50 mph. Acceleration too seems quite slow. On the upside however they are expected to have a fuel efficiency equivalent to 300 miles per gallon, even assuming that the electricity to produce the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels. What is more they can be continually updated and repaired thanks to the lease system which aims to ensure they have the maximum possible lifespan.

If vehicle transport is to move to hydrogen or electric vehicles, efficiency will be just as important as it currently is with fossil powered cars. The less electricity we use, the less generators we need, and while I have soft spot for wind turbines, I still agree that we want as few as possible.

If the trial in Leicester proves a success, Riversimple hope to set up a factory nearby, initially capable of producing 5000 cars a year. I’ll keep you posted…. 

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MushyPea is a UK-based writer and campaigner on environmental issues. Particular interests include wildlife conservation, climate change and renewable energy.

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