Open-Source Electric Cars? Umm, No, NOT A Good Idea

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2012 Tesla Model S

2012 Tesla Model S

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In the world of software, open source is officially A Good Thing.

It enables a far greater creative and technological base to tweak and change a piece of software than might be possible from within the company that created it.

Many are keen on the concept of open source electric cars--that is, electric cars where the built-in software can be tweaked, parameters can be changed, and in theory, the cars can be improved. Only it's a really, really bad idea.

As Gigaom illustrates, think of it as the difference between Google and Apple. Google is very much supportive of open source, allowing developers across the world to come up with complementary software to its systems.

Apple is more of a closed system--an iPhone is like a tight-knit community of programs that all work seamlessly with one another, but the software is very much limited to Apple products alone.

Naturally, you might favour the open-source approach--but is that really what you want in an electric car?

It's a cliché, but the closed system of Apple products "just works". Start introducing third-party software and you often find it bug-ridden and prone to crashing.

That's fine--if irritating--on a computer or smartphone, but "bug-ridden and prone to crashing" aren't the sort of characteristics we like to see in cars. Particularly "prone to crashing", both in a technological and a literal sense.

If a car has been designed to do its job, but an open source system lets people tweak it, what happens when the car shuts down in the middle of the highway and causes a pile-up? Or decides one day that it won't open any of the doors for you?

Even carmakers themselves have trouble with software--Fisker has issued a recall and apology recently with its Karma--so allowing average Joe to tweak the car's inner workings seems like a bad idea. Changing the characteristics of an electric car isn't as simple as re-jetting the carbs or swopping out the air filter...

That's not to say that all open sourcing in EVs would be a bad thing--there'd doubtless be people able to improve their cars in ways we never thought possible, who freely release their tweaks on the internet for all to benefit from.

As Gigaom points out though, the electric car cannot be open source in the short term, if it's to go mainstream. The DIY community has its merits, but for companies to make money from electric cars, the cars themselves need to be a stable platform.

Tesla Motors--so similar to Apple in many ways--could be the best illustration of the merits of a closed system when it comes to electric cars.

The automotive and technological worlds will no doubt be following the company's progress closely, determining whether its high-end values replicate Apple's success in an automotive environment.


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Comments (15)
  1. I'm sorry, I fail to see how open source would be a bad thing. The main software could still be controlled by the automaker, but both the automaker and their customers could benefit greatly from open source.
    Instead of having development limited to a limited number of capable individuals, the pool of knowledge would just be far greater.
    Open source does not mean customers would be stuck with "bleeding edge" software (although you'd probably be able to go down that route if you as an individual so choose), but rather that they might end up with a vastly improved bit of kit once a release has reached a "stable" state.

    In short, I'd honestly have no problem whatsoever if more open source thinking gets introduced to the automotive landscape.

  2. To the extent that the software deals with regulated systems that had to be "approved" by the Feds, it would presumably be illegal to alter it, much as one cannot swap in different fuel injectors or exhaust systems, reprogram the engine computer, etc in a gas powered vehicle.

  3. While I agree that a totally open source model would be bad - specially for vital software, there is something to be said for Open Source Car design projects such as local-motors dot com.

    In the US and Canada, there's a 51% fabrication rules that allow you to build cars and airplanes in a garage as long as you can prove that you've fabricated 51%+ of its parts. In aviation, such airplane is classified as "experimental" and the rules have led to many breakthrough designs.

    Local Motors is trying to do the same for cars and so far, it's working. In a way, it's similar to GM's program where buyers are invited to build their own engines -- for a fee.

  4. Agreed, open source car design, rather than car software, is a slightly different subject, and an intriguing idea.

  5. Just to add to my previous comment, there are numerous existing OSS software products, or products based on OSS code, that are remarkably stable and dependable, RHEL (Liux as a whole for that matter) immediately comes to mind.

    It's probably worth making a distinction in the types of coding out there like Alpha, Beta and Stable. I'm not a programmer myself, but once coding has reached "Stable", chances are you'll have virtually bulletproof software.
    If automakers release "stable" releases, that should be fine I think.

    Besides, people already modify their cars in questionable ways not involving software. These are problems coming from individuals, which has been a problem for ages already.

  6. I wonder if open source could cause warranty issues? You go in to have your car worked on for software glitches or some other related issue, only to have them say "sorry your glitch was caused by unauthorized software not covered under your warranty". A glitch caused by third party software that was installed by the cars owner could be looked at as owner inflicted damage and would either not be covered under warranty or could void your warranty altogether.

  7. That's a good point. My own train of thought was whether it'd affect resale value having non-standard software - at the very least, you'd have to flash the car back to standard when selling it. I reckon buyers would be suspicious if the previous owner had been playing around with the car's software himself...

  8. I could see someone loosing interest in a car that was messed around with, heavily or poorly customized cars loose a lot of value on the used lot.

  9. By the way, I think Tesla is already using Linux for the large screen central console computer. So, like Apple they build proprietary layers on top of Open Source foundation. Looks like the perfect mix to me.

  10. I think you've massively misunderstood what open source electric cars mean. Just because a system is open source doesn't mean that anybody can come along and install their own "Hello World" app into the system. It's open source. That's all. Anybody can go and look at the source. It allows for thousands to tens of thousands of people to find problems and suggest improvements. That's why some of the most stable systems in the world run on open source software.

  11. The original article from Gigaom is wrong at 100% (in fact the author has made some corrections after reading some of the comments) Full explanations about the mistakes are given here:

  12. "Many are keen on the concept of open source electric cars — that is, electric cars where the built-in software can be tweaked, parameters can be changed, and in theory, the cars can be improved."

    Operating systems can also be tweaked, parameters can be changed, and they have indeed been improved. Do you see average Joe tweaking the swappiness of his kernel? Also, opensource isn't just about tweaking but also contributing back to the community the improvements found.

    "so allowing average Joe to tweak the car's inner workings seems like a bad idea."

    So what? Average Joe can also play with the inner workings of his phone, router, TV, etc.. does he do that? No, if he wants to mess with his router he asks to the geek living next door.


  13. The author of this article fundamentally misunderstands how OSS actually works in practice. Please, stop spreading your FUD.

  14. Goofiness. Most ICE cars are now ruled by software, already. Why not ask/expect BMW or Ford to make their software open source? The only differences with EVs are the drivetrain, at heart.

    And the security implications of automotive "apps" are already very scary. Open source would be terrifying.

  15. The first thing I do with just about anything I buy is tear it apart to discover and remedy the design compromises created by the manufacturer. I would never, ever have any service done by a dealership on anything I own, from a toaster to a car. I fix all my own stuff. Period. The notion of stepping foot onto a dealer's property makes me want to vomit. Everything about it is evil. The dealership model needs to be discarded, and replaced with a robust support for aftermarket innovation. I want the manufacturer to sell me a raw, unfinished product online, then get the hell out of my life forever.

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