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In 2007, the team presented a car and the c,mm,n concept at the Dutch car show, the AutoRAI. (Jacco Lammers)
In 2007, the team presented a car and the c,mm,n concept at the Dutch car show, the AutoRAI. (Jacco Lammers)

Looking to the future

Designing a car without boundaries Add to ...

The cars of the future will have little to do with horsepower, size or style. But they will have everything to do with getting where you need to go.

And that idea of smart mobility is at the core of a Web-based, international car design project that aims to redefine our relationship with the automobile.

The c,mm,n project - which refers to "common" and "community" and is an attempt to distinguish outlandish concept cars from vehicles that meet specific needs - began in the Netherlands in 2005.

Stichting Natuur en Milieu (the Netherlands Society for Nature and Environment) asked the three technical universities in that European country to develop what it called an "innovative mobility concept" or, as Maarten van Biezen, manager, mobility, for Stichting Natuur en Milieu, calls it, "a new way of developing, manufacturing and using cars in the future," environmentally friendly, electric cars in particular.

Several large companies, including Athlon Car Lease and Rabobank, the largest bank in the Netherlands, stepped up to support the project, as did some auto parts manufacturers.

The ultimate goal of the project is "to speed up the introduction of super fuel-efficient, electric cars," says van Biezen. "We want to turn around the logic that the car manufacturing industry decides what people want to drive.

"If you ask somebody on the street if he wants the same car but twice as fuel-efficient, everybody would say yes."

In 2007, van Biezen and his team presented a car and the c,mm,n concept at the Dutch car show, the AutoRAI. At this year's AutoRAI in April, the c,mm,n project trumpeted what it hopes is its strength, the open-source nature of the car's development.

Borrowing a page from the open-source software movement, which believes in creating applications whose basic code lives in the public domain and can be distributed free of charge, people from around the world - be they engineers, environmentalists, designers or just plain car enthusiasts - can contribute to the project.

"The idea is to build a worldwide community to develop truly sustainable mobility by making the blueprint of the c,mm,n car publicly available under an open-source licence," he says.

"Everybody can use everything which is developed in the community, just as long as you make any derived work publicly available again."

And it's not just the automobile as we know it that the project is hoping to reinvent. It's also hoping to improve the way cars relate to their environment, from spewing less harmful chemicals to being able to park themselves.

"If cars can drive themselves to some extent, and are constantly communicating with the cars and infrastructure around them, we can use parking spaces more efficiently, parking door-to-door and bumper-to-bumper," says van Biezen.

"When you need your car, you press the button on your key, and your car arranges to get out of the parking place."

That type of automotive behaviour falls under "controlled network society," one of three societal factors van Biezen and the c,mm,n team determined as having an influence on the automobile's role in society.

Right now, about 1,000 people from around the world form the community contributing to the project with about 80 very active participants. They connect through the c,mm,n website (www.cmmn.org) as well as in "garages" or in-person gatherings to get to know each other and exchange new ideas. So far, the garages have been held only in the Netherlands but plans are under way to organize garages in other countries.

Van Biezen says the c,mm,n project would like to generate new ideas that can be taken into production by the mainstream car industry. "That can be done on a very small scale, like a startup company building a specialized series of c,mm,n cars for a specific purpose.

"But if for instance GM, Volkswagen or BMW wants to use ideas from the c,mm,n community to build a car, they're welcome to do so, as long as they contribute back to the project."

That's when the open-source nature of such a project can get tricky, says Mitch Joel, online marketing expert and president of Montreal marketing agency Twist Image.

Joel points out that the Linux operating system, which is often held up as an example of how well open-source projects can work, had its share of successes and headaches.

Some people made valuable contributions to it, but then some - representing their own interests - fought for the rights to benefit from what they added. C,mm,n could face similar problems if auto makers get involved.

Still, Joel doesn't feel the potential for that to happen should slow down c,mm,n. "One of my big gripes against the auto industry is when you compare it to technology, if you bought a laptop last year, and then bought a new one this year, the new one should be better and faster. But it doesn't work that way with cars.

"They don't take advantage of technology and the new car you'll get will be more expensive (than the last one). So it's time for some new thinking," Joel said. "I think this is a really interesting project."

As well, open-source, collaborative efforts are becoming the norm in all areas of business, and there's no reason the auto industry should be left out.

"You get a different perspective (from open source), which is very important. You get people involved who don't have an engineering degree or a business degree. It's easy for companies to get myopic," he said.

James Bell, publisher at automotive information company Intellichoice, agrees the automotive industry could use a healthy dose of fresh thinking and new ideas, especially as companies like General Motors and Chrysler are being reshaped by bankruptcy.

"The optimist in me thinks this is a great way to address the issue of mobility by starting fresh, with a clean sheet," he says. "For the past 20 years, the auto industry has been cruising along in second gear; it hasn't been pushing itself technologically. It needs smart, serious people like this who are willing to take a shot at something new."

While Bell wonders whether a c,mm,n car could be manufactured in a high-enough volume to be economically viable, it holds some very real potential for existing and emerging auto makers.

If for example, the Fiat-controlled Chrysler decided to take some of the ideas developed by c,mm,n, Bell believes the auto maker could easily spread those out to its brands around the world. "Those ideas would get a global platform."

And that could be start of a smarter mobile future.

globeauto@globeandmail.com

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