Patents, profit margins, and corporate politics, Markus Merz believes, only stifle technological innovation. So Merz, a former BMW employee who now owns an automobile consulting firm in Dingolfing, Germany, is trading in the conventional car-manufacturing paradigm for a new model—this one rooted in open-source collaboration.
Merz's Open-Source Car, or OScar, project allows just about anyone to modify or share technical information without royalty fees or legal risk. The resulting mass brainstorm, Merz says, "could create innovation not just in a car, but in mobility."
In Web forums at theoscarproject.org, participants exchange ideas that revolve around a few basic specs: The OScar will be a four-door electric vehicle with a maximum speed of 145 kilometers per hour—but beyond that, the details are up to … everyone. A few volunteers manage the forums and are charged with ensuring that the best ideas eventually move to computer modeling and testing.
Though there are no plans for anyone at OScar to build the car, Merz thinks that the lack of patents and proprietary data will encourage auto manufacturers to turn the virtual into reality. (He says he has already had some inquiries from China.)
Essen, Germany—based mechanical engineer Achim Schillak, who wrote a case study about OScar while at New York University, sees some limitations. "From an engineering perspective, it's not enough to have a virtual product that everybody is working on. After design studies and calculations, you have to build a prototype and crash-test it. That is very different from developing some software."
So far, though, about 1,300 people have registered to contribute to OScar. Merz, who has been at this since 1999 (the current iteration is version 2.0), has imposed no time line. "Bring in your work and idea," he says. "We'll see what we can create together."
OScar vs. the Mercedes F-Cell:
Maximum range: 500 km (theoretical) vs. 150 km
Maximum speed: 145 km/hr vs. 140 km/hr
Cars on the road: 0 vs. 60
Source: OScar, DaimlerChrysler
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.