The problem with the mainstream auto industry, says Jay Rogers, is that it has become too much of an industry.
As automakers sink more and more money into developing new cars, they create their own limitations. The costs of creating most new vehicles are so high and the infrastructure used to produce millions of cars and trucks a year is so expensive that it is unlikely anyone will take chances on new materials or new designs.
When you've been around for a hundred years, things ossify, said Rogers, who is president, CEO and co-founder of startup firm Local Motors Inc. in Chandler, Ariz.
With Local Motors, Rogers who spent six years in the U.S. Marine Corps and has an MBA from Harvard Business School hopes to shake up that system and push forward new concepts in car ownership and manufacturing.
Who says, for instance, that cars must sport body panels made of metal and covered with high-gloss paint, Rogers said in an interview at Industrial Designers Society of America's annual international conference, Aug. 4-7 in Portland. Paint shops are expensive to build and generate all kinds of environmental issues because of emissions from primers, base and top coats.
Instead, Local Motors offers its buyers three skins vinyl film wraps for composite body panels that personalize the car and improve its environmental credentials.
I can see where something like this doesn't work for major car companies who have already invested in paint shops, Rogers said. Local Motors has the chance to break away from that pattern, he said.
Rogers is a car fan who began looking for his opportunity to work in that industry in 2004. At the time, he was not sure what shape that would take, but he knew he wanted to be a part of it. Within two years, however, he found himself frustrated by the limitations of an industry that must generate a high enough level of sales to cover costs and meet investors' expectations. There seemed to be little flexibility and no room for the type of disruptive technology that could really change the playing field, he said.
All the big guys can do just amounts to tweaking the pieces, Rogers said.
On the other end of the playing field are hundreds of backyard shops providing customized parts and a few specialty businesses producing kit cars that let car lovers assemble their own vehicles. But not many people can or want to do that kind of assembly or even have the right tools on hand, he said.
Rogers said Local Motors fills a middle zone between major automakers and kit cars, allowing future owners to get involved in every step of the process from design to building their own car all with a little help.
An online forum allows designers to submit their own designs which are covered by a creative commons license and members vote on the best designs. Once a car design is selected for production, buyers can order one, with Local Motors overseeing production of individual parts.
Those parts are shipped to a local microfactory, equipped with the necessary tools and expertise to build the car. Individual buyers put in six days stretched over two three-day weekends to build their own car, with help from on-site mechanics.
The first microfactory is now running near Phoenix and the first car the Rally Fighter is available with production limited to 2,000 vehicles.
Rogers said future developments may tap further into the plastics industry, with more parts made of lightweight materials, including the potential for thermoplastic body panels.
Local Motors will never have the volume sales of traditional carmakers, he said, but that is not the point.
When you buy one, and when you finish building it, you can say, 'I earned that car,' he said. It's not just that you got a bonus and bought it, you really earned it.