The innovators: Skeleton car that is driving open-source design
OSVehicle hopes Tabby Evo electric car, which can be built in an hour, will be embraced by aid agencies and universities, among others.
In the chaos that ensues after a natural disaster, getting vehicles to aid workers for transporting refugees and supplies can be impossible as roads are frequently blocked. An alternative, says Yuki Liu, chief operating officer of the car design firm OSVehicle, is to airlift them in sections and construct them on the ground.
The idea is unworkable in the case of a standard car or 4×4 but possibly not for the Tabby Evo, an electric vehicle that can be shipped in parts and put together in an hour.
The Tabby Evo is the latest version of a “platform” car, which provides the bare bones of an electric vehicle – including the frame, suspension, steering systems, brakes, seats and wheels – on which companies, relief agencies and universities among others, can build and tweak their own vehicle by adding doors, interiors and a shell.
The skeleton cars were created by Yuki’s brother, Tin Hang Liu, and OSVehicle wants them to be an easier route into the automotive industry. This would end the need for years of research and development and hundreds of millions of pounds in investment. Along with vehicles for aid agencies, the company is working on projects where fleets are used for car-sharing or as delivery vehicles for packages.
Yuki said: “We started to think about how to change automotives because it is the most complex industrial product that has not changed for [some] time. Our background in automotives made us understand that there was a lot of need for innovation there because everything was still made in the same way.”
Tin and Yuki, who were both born and raised in Italy, followed their father into the motor industry. They soon became interested in the idea of circular economies, in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible. In 2008, Tin was working in Silicon Valley when he came in contact with open-source hardware – designs for machines and devices that have been publicly released. He applied the principles to cars, where one vehicle would be able to achieve a number of functions.
The Tabby Evo is the second version of the skeleton car. Available with two or four seats, the bare vehicle is charged from a plug socket and has a range of 75 miles (120km) , depending on the type of body attached to it, said Yuki. The maximum speed is 80mph (130kmh), but this can be capped at a lower number depending again on what it is being used for.
When a company buys fleets of the vehicles – the minimum is 200 – they design the final vehicle and then buy and fit the seats, doors and other components separately. Batches of more than 500 four-seater vehicles cost just under $5,000 (£3,500) each, although this price increases if fewer are ordered, according to the company’s chief finance officer, Alberto Loddo.
He said: “To make a new car model from scratch, you would need five to seven years and $100m to $200m. With our platform, we want to shorten that to one and a half to three years, depending on the complexity of the vehicle, and to $3m to $20m.”
An alternative is to download the designs for free from the OSVehicle website, in line with the open-source principle on which the company was founded. The motoring industry, which was previously the domain of a small number of established firms, has welcomed several new entrants in recent years. Apple has discussed plans for an autonomous vehicle with California’s department of motor vehicles, while Google’s self-driving car has also been developed.
The OSVehicle units consist of parts that can be easily swapped without throwing away other working parts, which expands the vehicle’s lifespan, said Yuki. Its core unit contains the most complex parts of a vehicle, which means it is stable and ready to use, she added. Loddo compares it to the Android operating system for mobile phones, where developers can freely access the software as a base on which to build apps.
He said: “The automotive world and the tech world are merging but the only thing is that the automotive world is very slow and big, and not so fast to adapt to change.”
The aim is to remove barriers for entry to the market for smaller companies, which can build different designs on one core vehicle. The two-seat version is comparable to a Smart car, and the four-seater to a Mini Cooper, Loddo added.
The company makes money by selling the vehicles and also by designing and engineering final products for firms that want to make new vehicles using the platform. So far, 10 projectsare in development, ranging from fleets of hundreds to those with thousands of cars, although the exact details are under wraps. A two-seater car by an Italian IT company using its own information and entertainment system will be launched in June. Yuki says she expects to see the first vehicles on the roads next year.
Several projects are being developed in the Aquitaine region of France, including a car-sharing scheme, a delivery scheme and an agricultural programme, which is supported by the regional council.
Among the more bizarre ideas are vehicles that could navigate the surface of Mars or ones that could fly. More realistic suggestions have come from small islands that would benefit from the easy transportation of the parts, said Yuki.
Hotel chains are looking into whether fleets of electric vehicles could be used to transport tourists around Mediterranean islands. Future plans include developing the vehicles to saloon, 4×4 and mini-van sizes. “We are giving the possibility of new vehicles for a niche market,” Yuki said.