The Amazing Race

Can the wisdom of crowds design a next-generation car?

The Amazing Race
David Warren Lee | Photo by Emily Shur David Warren Lee | Photo by Emily Shur

The Engineer

David Warren Lee
Chairman, Project Director, and Systems Engineer
Society For Sustainable Mobility
Malibu, California


David Warren, 30, works as an engineering product manager for a defense contractor by day, but in his free time leads the Society for Sustainable Mobility’s Open Source Green Vehicle Project. The goal is a seven-passenger SUV that will get 100 mpg, sell for about $30,000, and, he says, have the performance of a Porsche Cayenne.

“The car is called the Kernel, because we’re using the same idea as Linux. So far, I have 150 engineers helping — all of them are part time. We provide the essential functions, plus interfaces so things can be plugged in. The power-source module could be battery or gasoline or compressed natural gas. If you wanted to go from gas to diesel, for example, you could swap those modules in a couple of hours.

I’m working on the electrical architecture, the basic propulsion system, and the power management. The chassis and suspension are being designed at Rotterdam University, and they’re going to be made out of a polymer. With steel, extracting and shaping generates a lot of greenhouse gases. Plastic takes a lot less energy to produce.”


The Student Teacher

Nii Armar
Codirector, Vehicle Design Summit
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Nii Armar, 23, is an MIT aerospace engineering graduate student who, along with undergrads Robyn Allen and Anna Jaffe and 2007 grad Jonathan Krones, runs an international open-source project of students trying to build a 200-mpg car.

“Anna and Robyn had the original idea: They went to the 2005 World Solar Challenge, where teams build cars to cross Australia, and saw 40 very similar vehicles. They thought, Maybe we could get these people together to collaborate. Vehicle Design Summit 1.0 brought 50 people to MIT in 2006.


We decided to make the 2007 summit virtual, collaborating with people from schools around the world. The goal is to make a low-cost, 200-mpg four-seater for the Indian market. It’s a plug-in hybrid, and we have about 200 people involved, almost all of them students. We’re aiming to have our first iteration done by the end of summer 2008, then a final version by 2009 or 2010.”

The Design Pro

Geert-Jan Schellekens
Principal Automotive And Industrial Designer
SABIC Innovative Plastics
Bergen Op Zoom, The Netherlands

Geert-Jan Schellekens, 45, is the principal automotive and industrial designer at SABIC Innovative Plastics (formerly GE Plastics), where he works on the C,mm,n (pronounced “common”), an open-source car project managed by three technical universities in the Netherlands.


“We help our customers develop the end product, whether it’s an MP3 player or a car. So being involved in design of this kind is not unusual. With C,mm,n, the chassis will be metal because it does the job better: It has very high stiffness. But the body will be plastic. It’s lightweight, and it gives designers the freedom to make a vehicle that’s more aerodynamic so it’s more fuel-efficient. As a company, we do projects like this to stay in sync with what’s going on in the world, and the whole idea of open-source design is very interesting. It’s like the automotive Wikipedia. We’ve learned a lot.”

The Prize Giver

Cristin Lindsay
Senior Director
Automotive X Prize Foundation
Pasadena, California

Cristin Lindsay, 30, is helping plan an automotive cousin to the space-race X Prize. At least $10 million await the team that comes up with a practical mass-produced car that gets at least 100 mpg.


“You hear a lot about vehicles that get over 100 mpg, but they’re not taking into account ‘energy equivalence.’ We’re looking at how much carbon is emitted in the production of the energy that the cars run on. Our dual focus is to break our addiction to oil and reduce carbon emissions.

We’re not looking for science projects. We’re looking at feasibility, safety, the ability to provide service and support with today’s infrastructure, and whether a vehicle with those features can sell at a volume of 10,000 or more per year. The cars that qualify will compete in a race between U.S. cities in 2010, and the lowest time wins. We feel that the technology to achieve these goals exists today, but it needs to be combined in a way that will work for people.”

The Amateur

Markus Merz
Dingolfing, Germany


Markus Merz, 39, is a former BMW marketer who founded the first open-source car-design project in 1999. Along with pals Lukas Neckermann and Andreas Hoffman, he’s trying to create a platform that will let manufacturers build a flexible, economical car out of basic modules.

“I always used to wonder, Why don’t we take the engine from the Mustang and put it into the body of the 7 Series? You could take the good parts and create something new. Have you ever built a computer? You buy a CPU, memory, and a case, and you put it together. That idea is what OScar is about.

Back in 1999, we set up the project in German, and we got every German kid who liked to tune cars. Then we slowed down, we set up a better structure, and we did it in English. Now we have 2,800 registered users. About 10% are posting and 1% are really doing something. I’m not thinking about manufacturing, but if someone else wants to build the car we design, he could. If you put money into the game, it starts to lose the spirit. The other open-source car projects are all driven by universities or by the X Prize. It’s much more interesting to create something as a hobby.”