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The open-source hydrogen car set to change the industry

Alex McDonald

20th January, 2010

Cars are evil, right? But what if they ran on hydrogen, did 300 miles per gallon, were leased rather than owned, and were produced under an open source business model...

We have often been introduced to the car of tomorrow, but one company has now created a car with the future in mind. But it is about far more than just a car, it’s about a business model that is challenging the very architecture of the auto industry.

Riversimple’s network electric car is a hydrogen fuel cell powered car, with unique technologies that enable it to run on a 6kW fuel cell, with a fuel consumption equivalent to 300 miles per gallon and greenhouse gas emissions at 30g per km, well-to-wheel - less than a third of that from the most efficient petrol-engine cars currently available. 

It also has the potential to be 10 times cleaner still if the hydrogen is produced from renewable energy.

Open source

But what is extraordinary about Riversimple is that their business model is trying to move away from the current auto industry practice that has left us with the inefficient, one-size-fits-all car.

The first departure from the conventional business plan is that the designs of the car will be released under an open source licence. This allows people to freely build on ideas and designs, speeding up innovation and enabling technologies to be quickly improved, meeting the needs of people rather than markets.

'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,' says Hugo Spowers, the brains behind Riversimple.

'[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.'

Shared learning

To aid the development of the open source hardware community, Riversimple has set up the 40 Fires Foundation, an open-source hardware group that anyone can join to share expertise and develop technologies.

Before any official launch, the foundation has already registered over 300 people with expertise in various areas, showing the huge potential for an open-source technology community.

And this potential can be far reaching:

'Open source allows [developing] countries to build their own technological capacity without having to be liable for any cash fees to the first world,' says Spowers. The foundation can also take briefs from other countries, adapting technologies as required.

Small-scale production

Complementing the open source philosophy, the manufacturing requirements of the car mean that the size of production plant will be greatly scaled down.

The low component count of the cars and their carbon composite bodies, means that smaller plants will be needed. Riversimple expect one plant to manufacture around 5,000 cars a year, unlike the production of the conventional pressed steel bodies, where a factory will spit out about 300,000 a year of the same model - necessary for the economies of scale.

'When you are doing it at that scale,' says Spowers, 'the breakeven volume at which a model becomes commercially viable is 100 times lower. So you can genuinely build cars that suit people's needs, rather than the opposite extreme which is the lunacy of the "world car".'

As a result, the industry can become more distributed: it will be possible to have smaller plants in different places, making different models that are more suitable for different geographies or cultural needs.

Cars will not be sold

Another significant departure from the conventional business model is that the cars will be leased, not sold. The leasing will include the maintenance of the car, the fuel and the recycling of the car at the end of its life.

The idea behind leasing the cars is primarily to bring the incentive of making the cars more sustainable in their production, maintenance and use, back to the manufacturer.

'There’s no driver for resource efficiency if we sell the car,' says Spowers. 'If we sell the cars… we have a direct incentive to sell as many cars as possible, so there’s absolutely no commercial sense to build in longevity, low running cost or fuel efficiency – the opposite in fact.'

In providing the opportunity to produce niche specific cars, Riversimple will also be paving the way for a wider cultural shift in car use. The leasing of the cars will undermine the 'commodity value' of the car, leaving drivers only with the use value of the car and, as designs develop and specialised cars are produced, people will - in theory - lease the right car for the right job, rather than the right car for their image.

Car clubs

With this in mind, Riversimple expects car clubs to be major customers.
'Car clubs tease apart the functionality of cars,' says Spowers.

For most people, he says, '95 per cent of their [car] requirements will be covered by a certain set of needs, but they buy a car to meet 100 per cent of their needs, and that’s dictated by the last 5 per cent. If 95 per cent of their requirements is on their own, commuting a 20 mile distance and then every couple of weeks they’ll go away with the family, they’ll buy an estate car for that one journey every couple of weeks. …

'If you have car clubs – and they really have mushroomed recently – it means that people can buy the car for 95 per cent of their needs and rely on the car club for the 5 per cent. I think that is a really crucial element in moving towards much more niche, specific, appropriate vehicles for appropriate uses.'

Riversimple cars are expected to be on trial in the UK from 2012. Around 50 cars will be leased in one or two cities, supported by the local authority.

Several local authorities have expressed interest including Oxford and Leicester.

Hydrogen fuel

One of the major challenges for the Riversimple concept is getting the hydrogen to the cars. In partnership with BOC and participating Local Authorities, Riversimple hopes to overcome this by starting small and building the infrastructure as demand grows.

Hydrogen refuelling stations will be built in the participating cities, and, as the cars and their hybrids become more popular, the network will build and eventually become extensive enough to support intercity travel.

The efficiency of the Riversimple car is expected to make the transportation of enough hydrogen to fuel stations feasible.

Opportunity

Spowers himself conveys an infectious sense of urgency.
'There’s a window of opportunity of about ten years in which I think we’ve got a chance of establishing this,' he says. 'In about 10 years time, people will have a steel bodied fuel cell car with probably a 60 KW fuel cell system in a commercially viable, ordinary five-seater family car.

'The problem with that is that it will require about four times as much fuel than a car built on the principles we are advocating. And once fuel cell cars are available in the conventional steel bodied platform, then it will be very much harder to ever go back and re-address the fundamental architecture. I don’t think you’ll be able to do it.'

If the opportunity is missed, says Spowers, cars will be made for the mass market, people will depend on one-size-fits-all and innovation will remain slow.

Useful links

Riversimple

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