Rogers thinks the same satisfactions motivate the folks who buy the car. Obviously they are well-heeled enough to purchase an expensive car in difficult economic times, but Rogers believes there is a deeper appeal than owning a new trinket. He calls it the “build experience”—the opportunity to make your own car, doing everything from designing the images that adorn the wrap to tightening the bolts. The experience takes six days. It could be a father and his son, or a few friends, or even a husband and a wife. Clients aren’t mechanics. Some of them have never even used a screwdriver. But the building experience is a path to the bonding experience. Builder-trainer Mike Pisani says, “We are trying to create the Disney World of automotive experience. You’re not just swapping cash for a car.”
In a way, that is the primary force behind the third industrial revolution: bringing people together, sometimes in new and unusual ways. Local Motors has held design competitions with Shell Oil for local energy-efficient vehicles, with the B’Twin bicycle company for an adult tricycle, with Peterbilt trucks for a new flagship vehicle, with Domino’s Pizza for a customized pizza-delivery car and even with Reebok for an automobile-inspired sneaker. While the main participants are aspiring designers, truck drivers signed on for the Peterbilt project, and pizza-delivery workers entered the Domino’s contest. Moreover, Local Motors has deals with Snap-on Tools, Lincoln Electric, Siemens PLM Software (to provide CAD to the community for a nominal price) and 3M, which produces the wrap the Rally Fighter uses instead of paint.
Traditional car companies, however, are skeptical. The head of innovation at GM visited the Arizona facility and came away baffled. “He didn’t get it at all,” Rogers says. He attributes it to the fact that most automobile executives, though eager to learn how to move cars via the internet, do not like cars very much, not the way he does. He is especially lathered over a lead automotive analyst who called the iPhone the “new Mustang,” as if social networking could replace the automobile.
Even so, LM partnered with GM in overturning a California regulation that prohibited taking an engine from one car and putting it in another (as LM did with the Chevy LS3) for fear that emissions controls would be circumvented. The companies were, as Rogers says, “strange bedfellows.” LM is also collaborating with BMW on a plan in which LM would use its international community to design local vehicles for specific areas and then have BMW manage some of the micro-factories.
Rogers claims he has already made more cars than Preston Tucker, and he believes his company will be profitable by the end of 2013, not just from car sales but from competition partnerships and selling CAD software to the community. Because his overhead is so low, he says he needs to sell only five cars a month to get there. But then there are those industrial vistas that stretch far beyond turning a profit. Already LM is working on a two-seat “tandem car” that is being both designed and engineered by the LM online community with the intention of providing specs so anyone can build the car at home for as little as $10,000. The company is examining how to energize the engineering community, which currently has only 50 regular participants, and make it as active as the design community in the hope that LM might someday make its own engine. It is also looking for global partners, both corporate and governmental, especially since the regulatory hurdles in the developing world are much lower than those in the United States.
But as almost everyone at LM says, the objective is to be more than just a car company. The objective is to be the online transportation hub of the world: the place where anyone interested in transportation, be it cars, boats, bicycles, trains or planes, can go to discuss, design and engineer vehicles. Already in garages, basements and warehouses around the country there are hundreds of “hacker spaces”—guerrilla labs where anyone who wants to make something can hang out with other tinkerers, use equipment and produce things. LM has drawn on several of these in Phoenix for ideas, and it has turned its own micro-factory into a hacker space on Thursday nights. Over time it could become the biggest virtual hacker space in the world. As Isaac Olson, LM’s engineering-community liaison, sees it, someday the company may serve as an exchange, showing people how to realize their plans by connecting them to manufacturers and others with expertise. Designer Aurel François agrees. He sees LM not just as a potential Facebook for designers but also as a potential eBay for transportation design.
“I think Local Motors is going to be a household name in five years,” CIO Tim Thomas predicts. “What we’re doing is completely different, and what we produce is very passionate.” Of course LM could also wind up on the trash heap. But if it succeeds, Jay Rogers may turn out to be a 21st century business legend—the man who showed ordinary people how to beat corporations at their own game, the man who fought industrial inertia and won and, not least of all, the man who did something so gigantic and revolutionary that it demonstrated his own fortitude and burnished the Rogers name after his father’s setback. That’s why Jay Rogers is all-in. He can’t afford to lose.