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Designers challenge the status quo in local design competitions. Rogers, a former Marine captain who graduated in the top of his class at Harvard Business School, was referring to the building of the company’s prototype with a welded frame to which the carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic exterior is attached — like a NASCAR race car.
But he might as well have been referring to the whole concept of building cars at Local Motors, which he said currently involves some 2,000 designers from 118 countries in addition to 10 full-time employees.
Rogers said his idea was to design and build cars from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
In other words, he imagined a company producing a limited number of cars at local sites with the designs being articulated and voted on by a global community of designers linked through the Internet.
The first competition, which was won by Filip Tejszerski who is an Australian of Polish origin, was for a the “Cali Off-Road Machine,” a car that would be race-ready to compete in the Baja 1000, a nonstop race across 1,000 miles of the Mexican desert. Subsequent refinements on the design through the online community resulted in Sangho Kim coming up with the prototype that is currently in development.
Given that many of the designers have never been to the United States, let alone the California Baja, Rogers said Local Motors provides, in addition to the entry requirements, a character for the potential car with pictures, highlights, and history of the locale along with video clips.
Design sketches from all over the world line one wall of the front entry to the company’s offices, while a 3-foot model of the winning design sits on a pedestal.
Rogers explained that the model represents the first generation of the car, which is officially named the Rally Fighter and is described as a Performance Off-Road Desert Racing Rally Coupe
Elements making it race-ready include having the engine set back to allow for room for the suspension bars and allowing the wheels to bounce more than 18 inches compared with a regular 8 inches. In everyday terms, that means the car can drive over an 18-inch boulder and the driver hardly feels it.
In addition, setting the engine back also makes it more stable when it jumps 3 feet or so into the air when hitting off road bumps at high speeds.
And with a lightweight but strong carbon-fiber reinforced thermoplastic shell and a Mercedes BlueTec clean diesel engine, he said the vehicle is a great deal greener than the average rally racer.
The “Gen One” design is also what informs the first full-sized car that is taking shape in the workshop to the rear.
Cutout foam ribs provide a sense of the overall shape of the vehicle and the placement of such elements as the engine and cabin interior. And while one employee is busy welding the frame together, certain parts from existing auto companies are already in place.
Rogers described the construction process as incorporating existing parts from different manufacturers.
“It’s real and representational,” he said, adding that he had no problem living with the constraints of using off-the-shelf parts.
Rogers, 35 and married with three young sons, said his idea of building a car was based on turning the existing economic model on its head. Traditionally, he said, an auto company comes up with a concept that it believes will meet market demand and then designs, manufactures and markets it to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Instead, he said he wanted to create limited numbers of vehicles designed for a particular locale by an online global community of designers who not only submit designs but weigh in on each others’ designs with critiques and suggestions. They then decide the winning design by voting, thus ensuring that there is already an extremely wide variety of opinion on what the market wants in a certain vehicle.
Once the winning design has been chosen, Rogers said a prototype will be built that will further modify the design through Gen Two and Gen Three. He said much of the work in building the prototype was translating the design sketches into three-dimensional form.
“Designers like to submit in two dimensions,” he said. “They sketch in two dimensions, rendering it in three through perspective and shadowing.
“It’s the quickest way to get across your ideas.”
He said the process moves the design from Gen One to Gen Two and showed how parts of the car currently being produced were already slightly differentiating from the original concept.
He said his 3-D printing machine saves the company both time and money in articulating the design of the car and its elements. Holding up a Le Mans-style racing gas cap, he showed how it had been “printed” on the machine from a computer drawing in three hours at a cost of about $150. Traditionally, he said the design would have been outsourced, possibly to a shop in China, and taken a few months and cost $3,000.
Once the prototype has been completed — Rogers said he expected the Rally Fighter prototype to be complete this summer — it would be built at a factory in the locale for which the car was designed.
He said the production process would involve building the parts, which the owner would then assemble with the help of a builder-trainer. Rogers said he sees the assembling of the vehicles taking about 80 hours.
What’s the price point? Rogers said he sees the Rally Fighter being marketed at about $50,000.
“That’s expensive, but the car will be rally ready,” he said, comparing the price to buying a Ford F-150 pickup truck and investing in it to make it race ready.
He compared the economics of his business plan to a mainline auto company.
Citing the Toyota Prius hybrid, he said the car cost $4 billion to develop and recently sold its millionth vehicle.
“That’s $4,000 per vehicle in development costs,” he said. “But what if they had sold only 500,000? That would have been $8,000 in development costs.”
“That’s the problem with the car industry; it has to make big bets,” he said. “That was the big Ah-Ha for me,” he said, likening his business plan to a micro-brewery manufacturing beer on a small scale for a local market with launch and advertising focused on the Internet.
Rogers came to running his car company via Princeton, two years marketing in China with a medical supply company set up by his father, two years as a financial analyst in Dallas, seven years as an officer in the Marine Corps, and Harvard Business School.
At certain key moments in his life he said he benefited from counsel from men who encouraged him to focus on what he really wanted to do with his life.
For example, he said he had given up his dream of serving with the Marines after being initially turned down because of an injury. But four years later, the opportunity to serve presented itself through an ex-officer client at the Dallas investment company.
And after his tour in Iraq, where he was in command of 300 Marines, his senior officer advised him that while he believed he had the potential to make General, was that what he really wanted?
He said he subsequently resigned from the Corps and attended Harvard Business School.
“I had seen a lot and was not interested in going to bars every night,” he said, referring to his success in graduating a Baker Scholar in the top of his class. “I really worked and crushed it.”