Opening up

On the terrace of Somerset House in London yesterday, The Engineer joined a throng of excited people to witness the launch of the Riversimple hydrogen-powered city car.

In bright sunshine on the terrace of Somerset House in London yesterday, The Engineer joined a throng of excited people to witness the launch of the latest entrant in the competition to spearhead the future of the car industry: the Riversimple hydrogen-powered city car. Designed by a former motorsport engineer, the diminutive, lightweight runabout incorporates some fascinating technology, which we’ll be talking about in an upcoming issue.

The technology isn’t the only interesting thing about Riversimple, however. Its designers intend to turn the accepted philosophy of engineering business on its head. Instead of hedging their hard-won innovations around with a thicket of patents, to ensure that only it can exploit its inventions, it will make all the car’s designs ‘open source’ — available to all, for free, to tinker with and improve.

It’s an idea that’s taken root in recent years in the software industry, notably with the operating system Linux, where it takes advantage of the propensity of hardcore coders to customise and fiddle with their systems. The argument there is that it encourages innovation. Show the people how the thing works, and their natural propensity is to find a way to improve it. Then everyone gets to benefit from that improvement.

Riversimple aims to follow the same path, with a distributed manufacturing base making the car for each city where it will be used, and ‘local’ improvements and refinements in design being funnelled back to the headquarters and sent around. And there seems something natural about this approach being taken in the automotive sector, particularly in the UK. After all, this is the country of the Man in the Shed; the tinkerer; the bloke (and let’s face it, it’s always a bloke) with his head under the bonnet or flat on his back under the car with oil-drips on his shirt and grease under his fingernails, stripping down, rebuilding, finding a tricksy way to eke out an extra horsepower or two. It certainly fits the motorsport industry where Riversimple founder Hugo Spowers learned his trade.

But is it a viable way to run a technology business? For so many years, we’ve been told the way to do it is the get the IP and defend it with your life. And that’s supposed to encourage innovation as well. It’s an incentive for inventors, and a spur for other inventors; if one way to a technological result is closed off, you have to find another one. Going so far away from the received wisdom, can Riversimple hope to make the profits it needs to stay afloat?

On the terrace of Somerset House, looking at the smiley-face bonnet of the city car, we had our doubts. But there’s a lot of innovation on display in the Riversimple team, and it’s not just in the technology. With established businesses dropping around our ears and many of the tenets of late-20th Century industry proving shaky, false or open to abuse, maybe a set of new ideas is just what we need. We’ll be watching with interest.

Stuart Nathan
Special Projects Editor